Got Flooding? Summer in the Midwest Offers Unique Water-Smart Landscaping Opportunities

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Chicago-based Greenwise Organic Lawn Care shares water-smart landscaping tips, such as rain gardens and permeable hardscapes, designed to filter toxins and prevent rainwater run-off. Summer storms in the Midwest often overwhelm drainage systems, flood homes, and create toxic storm water run-off that pollutes the precious water supply.

The Midwest is not facing the unprecedented drought conditions hitting the West Coast, but the distinct summer weather pattern here of hot, dry spells followed by sudden, heavy downpours, offers unique opportunities for water-smart landscaping techniques. Water-smart landscapes create beautiful lawns, gardens, and hardscapes that conserve and protect water as well as save homeowners money.

“We get so much rain in the Chicago area that it can be easy to take it for granted: Water is a precious resource but we often squander it,” Marc Wise, owner of Chicago-based Greenwise Organic Lawn Care (, said. “In the Midwest, ‘Water Smart’ means not just capturing the water that falls, but also protecting the water we already have.”

When rainwater rushes down the street and into a storm drain instead of soaking down through the soil, trees and flowers miss its benefit. Worse, the rain water gathers exhaust residue, pesticides and other pollutants that then leach into the water system.

“Healthy soil is the best water filtration system on Earth,” Wise said. “When rain water hits improperly maintained turf, asphalt or other impermeable surfaces, we pollute existing water resources with toxic runoff that should be filtered through healthy soil or permeable hardscapes. Instead of capturing clean water, we end up ruining the existing water supply.”

Wise points to a wide range of ways to incorporate water-smart techniques into Midwest landscapes, from the design stage – such as installing permeable pavement & driveways, or dry creek beds and other water catchment systems -- to easy-to-implement additions to existing landscapes, such as using a rain barrel or creating a rain garden.

Permeable pavement helps solve the top two problems created by polluted runoff: dirty stormwater that poisons streams and lakes, and the tsunamis of water that gush through creeks and flood buildings. Permeable pavement cleans the water as it trickles through it into the soil, and it helps the dirt soak up the water, recharging pockets of buried groundwater.

“Rain gardens -- plantings that capture and take advantage of rainwater -- help limit runoff, which takes the pressure off storm-water systems,” Wise said. “When you build a rain garden, you turn a place that doesn’t drain properly into a pretty garden area that helps prevent flooding and run-off.”

Water-Smart landscaping doesn’t have to be expensive or involve major changes to existing properties, Wise said:

“Start with your soil. Healthy soil allows rain water to soak in and filter out toxins before it reaches the aquifer. Ditch the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that cause unnecessary damage to the environment and let the earth run a filtration system millions of years in the making!”

In short, Wise says, plan and maintain your landscape with principles of water efficiency in mind, and it will continue to be attractive and healthy while requiring less maintenance and less water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) offers the following water-smart landscaping tips as part of the EPA’s WaterSense Program (

  • Go native or choose plants that need less water. Once established, native and low water-using plants require little water beyond normal rainfall. If you’re designing a new landscape or just sprucing up your current landscape, be sure to consider the water needs of the plants you choose.
  • Group plants according to their water needs. Grouping vegetation with similar watering needs into specific “hydrozones” reduces water use by allowing you to water to each zone’s specific needs. Turf areas and shrub areas should always be separated into different hydrozones because of their differing water needs.
  • Maintain healthy soils. Healthy soils are the basis for a water-smart landscape; they effectively cycle nutrients, minimize runoff, retain water, and absorb excess nutrients, sediments, and pollutants.
  • Be selective when adding turf areas. Turfgrass receives the highest percentage of irrigation water in traditional landscaping. To improve the aesthetics of your landscape and better manage outdoor water use, plant turfgrass only where it has a practical function.
  • Water wisely. Know your plant’s water needs and avoid watering during the heat of the day. If you have an irrigation system, make regular adjustments to ensure proper watering. And be sure to look for the WaterSense label on components for your system.
  • Use mulch. Incorporate mulch around shrubs and garden plants to help reduce evaporation, inhibit weed growth, moderate soil temperature, and prevent erosion. Adding organic matter and aerating soil can improve its ability to hold water.
  • Provide regular maintenance. Replace mulch around shrubs and garden plants at least once per year, and remove weeds and thatch as necessary.

Greenwise Organic Lawn Care
Founded in 2007, Greenwise Organic Lawn Care is the leading organic lawn care company in the Greater Chicago area. Greenwise provides organic lawn care, sustainable landscape design and installation, eco-friendly landscape maintenance, sustainable horticultural and arbor care, and eco-friendly snow removal services. More information about Greenwise can be found at

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Michael Kormanik
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