URBANA, Ill. – University of Illinois’ first rain garden is now also its most accredited. The Red Oak Rain Garden was recently recognized and certified by a variety of nature organizations for its efforts to support wildlife.
The Red Oak Rain Garden is a 10,000 square foot demonstration site on campus that reduces sidewalk flooding and educates the public about sustainable garden design. Its 2019 redesign added 9,000 plants, most of which are native species, making the garden eligible to be certified as a waystation for butterflies by Monarch Watch and as bird-friendly by the National Audubon Society.
“We value all of these organizations, so it’s a real honor to have the garden be certified by them,” says Eliana Brown, a water quality specialist with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Illinois Extension, who serves as the Red Oak's director.
The garden’s ground cover of native plants acts as a small-scale wetland, absorbing and filtering rainwater runoff instead of allowing it to overwhelm sewer systems and contribute to flooding downstream.
“We’d like this to inspire people to reimagine their property and create environmentally sound landscapes,” Brown says.
The redesign team chose plants that supported a healthy ecosystem by creating habitat and food sources for wildlife with plants such as milkweed and black-eyed Susan. They pledge to refrain from using insecticides and herbicides. The Red Oak Rain Garden is an affiliated project with the Champaign County Master Gardeners and East Central Illinois Master Naturalists who will weed the garden by hand, reducing the need for herbicides.
Each certification comes with a sign, and the Red Oak Rain Garden will be added to a national garden database.
“Each certification has mapping tools to track where these gardens are popping up,” says Layne Knoche, visiting Extension outreach associate and Red Oak's landscape designer. “Being able to post these certifications on our website and direct people to these organizations is the garden’s benefit; it pushes forward our outreach and conservation efforts.”
Red Oak Rain Garden was established in 2007 between Allen Hall and McKinley Health Center to fix flooding that also threatened a large red oak tree. With its high-traffic location, the garden is also well suited as a green space.
“The garden is on a main pedestrian thoroughfare coming into campus,” Brown says. “Our vision for it is to be a place that helps support wellbeing for all who visit, wildlife and people.”
The Red Oak Rain Garden received seven certifications: Monarch Waystation, Monarch Watch, Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, Illinois Audubon Society; Plants for Birds, National Audubon Society; Wildlife Habitat, National Wildlife Federation; Native Plant Butterfly Garden, Wild Ones; Certified Butterfly Garden, North American Butterfly Association; and Pollinator Pocket, University of Illinois Extension. Anyone can apply for certifications if they have an eligible space.