What a coincidence! I have two framed Egyptian papyrus prints on the walls of my home. And now I have Egyptian papyrus plants in my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss.


The papyrus plant is a reed that grows wild in marshy areas around the Nile River. One of my favorite excursions when I visited Egypt during our circumnavigation was our boat trip down the Nile River. How I loved to see those papyrus plants swaying in the breeze! During a cultural show, we learned the process of making paper from papyrus. First, the inside of the stalk was peeled into long strips. Then these strips were spread out in two layers, one horizontal and one vertical, and pressed and dried to form a sheet. The sheet could be used by itself, or individual sheets could be joined end-to-end to form a roll. Natural gum held the sheets together, so no glue was required. A roll was usually about one foot in height and could be up to 100 feet in length.

I never knew that papyrus was offered by nurseries in the USA until I built my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss. I had researched the process in sustainable landscaping books and websites and diligently followed the instructions using native Wisconsin plants with deep roots. All of the natural flowers worked well in heavy rains except for the blazing stars planted in the center, the deepest part. They just drowned.

DSC00488 Dry Creek Flowing into Rain Garden.jpg

So the following spring I decided to try something else. But what?  Dale, my gardener with Lake Services, just happened to notice a group of tall papyrus plants in the back of a pick-up truck leaving a nursery. He stopped the driver to ask questions. And then we considered our options: Papyrus is a non-native plant, but because I’d seen it growing wild in the Nile, I knew it had to have deep roots to soak up excess moisture in my Rain Garden. But, because it’s a tropical plant, we’d have to replace the three plants every spring.

DSC00497 Papyrus in Rain Garden Facing Lake.jpg

We went ahead and I certainly don’t regret it. This year, we’ve had lots of rain and the system works: My Wet Lot drains like it’s designed to do and the three King Tut papyrus plants stand tall and majestic, swaying in the breeze─just like their ancestors did in the Nile.

IMG_0040 Statue amid Papyrus on the Nile River, Egypt.jpg

I have magic memories of my childhood in the Midwest. In school, I studied the transition of egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis/cocoon) to a gorgeous adult butterfly with amazement. Then as the autumn days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, I marveled at flocks of Monarch butterflies migrating. “Look at those flying flowers,” I exclaimed as they took to the sky en masse. Those large flocks are no longer here; monarch populations have dwindled from billions to mere millions. But something can be done.

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

That such delicate creatures weighing less than a gram can fly over 3000 miles—often to the same tree from whence their ancestors came—never ceases to amaze me. In the Monarch’s summer territory (which includes most of North America) butterflies may mate up to seven times, all living from two to six weeks. Then, signaled by the lack of light (shorter days) the new non-reproductive butterflies hatch. (Reproductive butterflies do not migrate south, however, and the migratory ones do not reproduce until the following year.) The creation of these creatures required a lot of planning!

Migration Map

Migration Map

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency provided $2 million this year for “on-the-ground conservation projects.” A mad rush ensued to plant milkweed along the I-35 Monarch corridor, which extends 1,500 miles from Minnesota to Texas and provides spring and summer breeding habitats along key migration pathways. Conservationists had successfully lobbied transportation departments and utilities to reduce their use of herbicides and to encourage milkweed to grow along the roadways and powerlines. Great! This was one government project I could believe in! Monarchs depend on milkweed; it’s the only plant they eat and lay eggs on. And milkweed populations had dropped 21% between 1995 and 2013 due to increased development and herbicide use. But what happened to the I-35 Monarch migration pathway? Chalk it up to big government ineptitude! This summer, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, so the Transportation Department came and mowed the new milkweed plants down. No one informed the drivers of the trucks, and their job is the mow the weeds!

However, those living near this corridor can make a difference, says our local paper, called The Laker. If you have a sunny patch of land, you can mix and match flowers to build your own butterfly garden.  Start with basic host plants such as swamp milkweed, broccoli, and bronze fennel. Then choose from perennials, which often reseed themselves, or nectar-rich annuals. Some choices are: butterfly weed, oregano, lantana, purple coneflower (Echinacea), blazing star, black-eyed susan, pink everlasting (sedum), and Mexican sunflower. I had already designed a rain garden last season so it was easy for me to plant what the monarchs need. My question was, “If I plant it, will they come?” The answer: “Yes!” My Wisconsin garden is now part of the Midwest migration path.

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“I never promised you a rose garden

Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes…”

–Lynn Anderson, 1973

The sun’s not out yet after three days and three inches of rain, yet I’m humming this song as I stroll past the rain garden I developed last year and completed this spring. It’s working!  All that run-off is draining from the hilltop and orchard into the dry creek and on to the rain garden as intended. I’m pleased that finding a practical solution to draining our wet lot has led to such beauty. (See How to Drain a Wet Lot).

Dry leading to Rain Garden

Dry leading to Rain Garden

A rain garden is a plant bed that collects rain runoff and holds water for a short time, usually less than twenty-four hours, while it absorbs excess water into the soil. If planted with native species, it should never require fertilizer or pesticides to thrive. In fact, the plants purify the water before it slowly drains into the nearby lake.

The diagram shows a shallow depression dug with an inflow and overflow designed for three moisture zones. The tall plants selected for Zone A need to tolerate periodic standing or flowing water. Mid-height plants that like average soil conditions may be used in Zone B. Zone C plants should be able to tolerate average to dry conditions and tend to be shorter plants.

“Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World,” Lynn M. Steiner and Robert W. Domm

Saturations Zones A-C showing inflow from the dry creek and overflow into a natural area and lake.

Saturations Zones A-C showing inflow from the dry creek and overflow into a natural area and lake.

I tried blazing stars for my tall plants in Zone A last year; unfortunately, they did not withstand periodic water. This year, I used three papyrus plants instead. So far, they are holding up well, with strong roots that absorb water well. I used black-eyed susans, cardinal flowers, swamp milkweed, and turtle-heads last year for Zones B and C. This spring, all these perennials came up again. They are now in full bloom. Swamp milkweed plants perform double duty: they provide a migration path for monarch butterflies. I’ve seen a few already and expect more in September.

The Rain Garden in action.

The Rain Garden in action.

A Monarch Butterfly alights on a Swamp Milkweed blossom.

A Monarch Butterfly alights on a Swamp Milkweed blossom.

To make the transition to the “natural garden” next to the lake, I planted Joe Pye weeds, a wildflower that grows naturally in Wisconsin. All in all, I’m quite satisfied with the result.

Swamp milkweek at the perimeter of the Rain Garden leads to a natural planting of Joe Pye weed.

Swamp milkweek at the perimeter of the Rain Garden leads to a natural planting of Joe Pye weed.

I returned to San Diego to find brown lawns and wilted trees. Obviously, my readers in the U.S. southwest do not have a problem with excess rain runoff. What a contrast to Northern Bliss, our summer lake home in Wisconsin, where too much rain became a major challenge in developing the cabin lot we had purchased last fall. During the month of June, we received 9.5 inches of rain!

 Preparing the lot.

Preparing the lot.

I’d always wanted an orchard. So I devised a plan that included a row of evergreens near the lot line for a windbreak (to dampen the effect of cold north winds), winding paths and flower beds, and half a dozen fruit trees—apple, cherry and plum. But after those June rains, I realized that what I had was better suited to developing terraces of rice! Those precious fruit trees would drown in that wet clay.

2 Tree-planting rig, web

Tree Planting rig.

Before I could plant anything, I needed to bring in two semi-loads of fill to bring the lot up to road level, followed by a layer of topsoil. Then I had to devise a drainage system that would somehow divert the excess rain runoff into the lake, keeping it off my neighbor’s yard. I thought of the dry creeks often seen in desert landscapes and experienced an aha moment: how about a creek that winds around spruce trees and into the lake?

With the expert help of Lake Services Unlimited, 5 gorgeous Black Hill spruce trees were delivered, one by one, from Cotter Tree Farm. We arranged them in a zigzag pattern to save space and to make a more pleasing arrangement than all-in-a-row. Next the creek was dug, lined with landscaping fabric, and filled on the bottom and sides with a single layer of medium-size boulders. At first, the creek looked quite artificial. But after we added other sizes of stone, topped it off with pebbles, and mixed up the rocks, it looked natural. The final touch was bringing in seven boulders for the property. The truck dumped them all at the edge of the lot. “Where do you want them?” asked the driver. This is not like rearranging your living room furniture! I knew I had but one chance to get it right. We put one boulder at the head of the creek, another among the trees, a third at the middle bend in the creek, and three for “seating” overlooking the rain garden. The final boulder was left for seating next to the cabin overlooking the lake.

Two trees planted; plywood planks prevent rig from sinking, web

Two trees planted; plywood planks prevents rig from sinking.

4 Five trees planted and dry creek prepared, web

Five trees planted and dry creek prepared.

5 Placement of second boulder

Placement of second boulder.

6 Dry creek landscape from road, web

Dry creek landscape from road.

We planted two groups of Siberian iris in the mulch surrounding the spruce and added lime creeping jenny to spread around a gray boulder. I purchased a few dozen day lily plants—six varieties to bloom from spring to fall—that now span the entire lot at the roadside. Lilies grow like weeds in Wisconsin; fortunately, they resist road salt, wind and extreme temperatures.

We extended an existing lakeside path to circle around the rain garden, dry creek, and orchard.  We added a wrought iron bistro table and two chairs (half-price in September!) A final touch—next year—will be a bridge over the creek so that we can access the spruce on the other side. I’ve learned that some folks with absolutely no landscape drainage problems build dry creeks just because they like the way they look.  How I love turning problems into opportunities!

8.Landscaping completed

Landscaping completed.

9  Bistro in center of orchard, web

Bistro in center of orchard.