Planting the Red Oak Rain Garden: Week 1

by Layne Knoche, RORG Landscape Designer

Winter break is here and our team finally has some time to catch up on this blog. This post covers September 15th – 20th.

Sunday, September 15:

Sunday was a day of last-minute prepping before the big day. Eliana wrote about it at the time; I’m going to add more details.

PLANTING PLAN: I finished the final edits to the garden’s planting plan. One of the garden’s goals is to be volunteer-friendly with their maintenance in mind. Thus, establishing a dense groundcover quickly to help shade out weeds that pop up is a priority. As such, the number of groundcover plants is much greater than the numbers of “structural” plants and “seasonal interest” plants so, the planting plans printed for installation only covered the groundcovers. Thousands of plants were arranged into large drifts that correspond to unique conditions – i.e. moisture and sunlight requirements, etc. The drifts are within a large grid that overlays the entire garden plan, with plants placed 12″-18″ apart depending on the eventual mature size of the plant.

TRANSLATING THE PLAN TO THE GROUND: On Sunday evening, with the planting plan in hand, Sonny Thompson, (best) Friend of the Rain Garden, and I set up a 20′ x 20′ grid using string and stakes. Following that, I translated the “drift” lines from the paper plan to the physical space using spray-paint. It was incredibly exciting for me to see lines I had drawn a full year ago appear on-site for the first time. To prepare for the volunteers arriving the next day to start installing plants, I began drilling holes in one of the squares. Throughout the planting process, we are using two drills provided by Facilities & Services’ Grounds department and a 2″ diameter auger attachment. I ended up drilling about 100 holes for Prairie Dropseed that evening. Because we began work in Cell One (the southern cell), where the soil was the bioretention mix called for by our own Tony Heath, the soil was soft and very easy to drill.

Earlier in the day, Eliana and Sonny worked on making name tags out of reused cardboard for all the species being stored at the greenhouse during installation. The intent of the additional signage was for members of the RORG team to remain on-site during plant installation, sending volunteers to the greenhouses to bring back loads of plants. An added benefit that Kate pointed out is that the signage was helpful for her since she’s a plant novice. Eliana also marked up yard sticks to help me with plant layouts. Three of the yard sticks were marked at 18″ increments using green marker, while the other seven were marked with 12″ increments with red marker. This was a huge help for me and the other volunteers drilling holes.

Monday, September 16:

Planting began on Monday! And so did a multi-day native plant sale!

In order to manage the dozens of volunteers who had shown interest in working with the RORG team on installation, we created an online poll using SignUpGenius. We set up two-hour time slots for anyone in the Master Gardener/Master Naturalist groups, as well as all of our student volunteers. This has proven to be helpful in ensuring we have a team working at all times on working days.

Monday started at 8:00 a.m. sharp with a team of Champaign County Master Gardeners and East Central Illinois Master Naturalists. We quickly figured out that an assembly line/team approach worked best. While I was drilling holes, we had a team popping plants out of cell trays, a team taking the plants and dropping them in the holes I drilled, and another team planted them. We got off to a great start.

Our colleagues at the County Extension Office loaned us coolers so we could provide volunteers with water on-site. While the assembly line of planting was going on, Kate went to fill the coolers with water. John Artis, pictured below, saw Kate struggling and brought her to the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall cafeteria. He introduced Kate to the cafeteria workers and explained that she needed the water for a student project just outside the building. He filled up both coolers with ice and water and helped her cart them outside. He even lifted them up and set them on the table! John is a University of Illinois F&S Building Service Worker at LAR. Kate said he would ask how the project was going whenever she would see him in the hall and checked if we needed anything else. John is the best!

At 9:00 a.m., our first visiting class arrived to volunteer. Professor Bridgette Moen’s LA 452 students were assigned a 20′ x 20′ square to work in. I started them off with a few examples of how to drill the holes, the spacing requirements, and an overview of best planting practices:

  1. Pop the plants out of the tray.
  2. Separate the roots gently.
  3. Place the plant in the hole.
  4. Backfill with the soil excavated from the drilling process, making sure not to pull mulch or other debris along.
  5. Press the soil in to eliminate air pockets.
  6. Pull some mulch up to – but not onto – the base of the plants.

After providing this overview, I asked for volunteers to continue drilling holes in their grid square. Several students were quite excited to drill, and they did a wonderful job. Professor Moen then gave them further instruction for the “assembly line” method as I went back to drilling more holes. In just over an hour, the class had installed nearly 400 plants!

By lunchtime, we were nearing completion of half the south cell. A group of volunteers watered in the freshly planted plants as the RORG team took a quick breather.

The second half of the day was more of the same – a lot of holes were dug, and a lot of plants went in. At 3:00 p.m., we welcomed our next class to the garden: a large group of Erin Harper’s HORT 100 students came to install plants, and that they did. To prepare for them, Tony and I had pre-drilled 500 holes for the students to plant during their hour of class. I kid you not, they were planted – correctly – in only FIFTEEN MINUTES. It’s incredible the work that can be done by many hands. To make things go a little faster on my end, I recruited two students to help drill holes, while I placed a special mix of some stunning Common Rush, Juncus effuses, from Possibility Place Nursery, Irises, Turtlehead, and Marsh Marigold at the bottom of the swale behind them. Groups of students came in behind me to plant everything I placed. By the end, it was I that was rushing.

The structural and groundcover layers of the south cell were completely planted by the end of the day – that’s nearly 3,000 plants in a single workday!

We also had a visit from Art & Design Professor Catherine Wiesener, who teaches in Allen Hall. She and Eliana have collaborated on other projects and they talked about another collaboration to create mosaic art pieces for the garden. How cool would that be?

After planting wrapped up, we began Day One of our Native Plant Sale! We were graciously given a large collection of plants by the amazing Bill Handel, but unfortunately not everything was going to make it into the garden. Bill gave us permission to sell the plants we weren’t going to use to benefit the rain garden. The sale went very well, and we sold off a large portion of our stock! By 7:00 p.m., the RORG team was starting the cleanup process for the night. Time to get some rest!

Tuesday, September 17:

Planting and selling continues.

On Tuesday, we started the planting of Cell Two (the middle cell). I was only able to get a little ahead of Tuesday’s volunteers with hole drilling, so there was a little more waiting around. The difference: Cell One’s bioretentions soil mix amendment was fresh and fluffy. Cell Two has a large Sycamore tree with and to protect the root system we did not amend the soil with bioretention mix. Nor did we till the soil so we could retain the existing soil structure based on recommendation from USDA soil health specialist Doug Peterson. Because of this, the soil is much firmer than that of Cell 1. This led to each hole taking almost twice as long to drill. Eventually, I was able to get used to it, it just took some time.

Another class of students from Erin Harper’s HORT 100 class came out to work with us from 3:00-5:00 p.m. As with the previous day, the class helped catapult us forward. It was great to have so many hard working students willing to put in their time and effort to achieve a common goal! It’s also fun to try my hand at teaching students alongside Eliana! [Ed.note – he did great! -EB]

We planted another 2,000 plants or so on Tuesday, and we really started getting great feedback from people walking by who were excited to see the progress we’d made in such a short amount of time. Day two of the Native Plant Sale began at 5:00 p.m., after most of the work in the garden had been finished. We have to give a quick shout out to NRES student Rhea Bridgeland, who has proven to be a true Friend of RORG by using her incredible sales tactics both days of the sale!

Wednesday, September 18:


The week before planting, as we were finalizing the schedule for installation, I thought, “Hey, let’s take Wednesday off so we have a chance to catch our breath!” and I’m glad we did just that!

The team was still on campus doing office work. We did take a trip out to the garden to place the Red Oak leaf stamps in the newly-poured south abutment for the boardwalk. Look for the finished boardwalk in the spring!

Thursday, September 19:


We continued planting continued on Thursday with a large area of BEAUTIFUL Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica, from Midwest Groundcovers. This area alone consisted of several hundred plants! Our team of Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists have done a tremendous job helping us get in all of the shrubs and plugs. By Thursday, we had really started getting the hang of the installation operation and it was becoming very enjoyable. The conversation was great and so was the music! Shout out to the Guardians of the Galaxy Spotify playlist for being super rad. Eliana believes it is the key to having FOUR generations of volunteers working happily side by side.

Friday, September 20:

Surprise! More plants.

We welcomed another round of students, this time from Andrea Faber Taylor’s HORT 344 Planting Biodiversity and Aesthetics class. Eliana gave an overview on the background and functionality of the rain garden and I led them through the plant installation process, answering some great questions about the variety and selection of plants going into the garden. The students planted several species of sedge, as well as a mix of Iris, Rush, Cardinal Flower and Celandine Poppy in the shaded swale bottom. I have to say one of my favorite species in the entire garden is the Celandine Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, from Northcreek Nurseries. By the end of the week, the rain garden was over half done! In less than four working days, more than 5,000 plants were installed. What a week!

More to come in Week 2 and Week 3.

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