A rain garden is a garden, planted in a slight depression in the ground, that collects water and allows it to gradually permeate into the soil. Rain gardens come in many sizes and are typically planted at the base of a slope or even at the outlet to a downspout–anywhere where water naturally flows or can be directed. Water-loving plants and a base of permeable soil enhanced with fertile loam and a topcoat of mulch allow the rain garden to quickly absorb even large amounts of water, usually in just a few hours.
Why are rain gardens important? One rain garden can seem small, but collectively they produce substantial community and environmental benefits. Rain Gardens make good use of rain water runoff and conserve precious water supplies, protecting the water quality of downstream rivers and lakes. Rain gardens use little or no fertilizer and pesticides, and need minimal maintenance once established. While native grasses and wildflowers are beautiful to look at, they are also very hard working. The roots of native wildflowers and prairie grasses typically go twice as deep into the ground as they are tall, thereby absorbing much more water and pollutants. And there’s more – rain gardens attract birds, butterflies, beneficial insects such as dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes! Rain gardens will enhance the beauty of your neighborhood in summer, but also in winter when the seed heads can be an appreciated food source for our winter songbirds. They can be a great project that can be used to teach our children about protecting the environment and enjoying nature’s beauty at the same time. And, science shows that they do not attract mosquitoes if built properly.
Begin choosing plants by looking at the native species in your area. Plants native to prairies and swamps or other areas subject to flooding and drought are your best bets, but don’t stop there. Also check with nature centers, extension offices and your state department of natural resources to see if they offer regional rain garden suggestions as well. As you go, use plants with a variety of bloom times for season-long color. Variety is a must. For instance, a -mixture of sedges, rushes and other grassy plants make a dramatic backdrop for flowers.
Here some colorful perennials to try:
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Place moisture lovers in the lowest areas of the garden that tend to stay wetter longer, and plant drought tolerant species on the sides or edges of the garden. Once all the plants are in, mulch the garden with twice-shredded bark. This mulch knits together and won’t wash away in the rain. Plus, mulching the soil prevents erosion, conserves moisture during dry spells and suppresses weeds. Be careful not to bury the crowns of the plants, though, because that can lead to rot.
Rain gardens are sunken gardens approximately 4-6 inches deep with a flat bottom. They should be approximately 1/3 the size of the area that is draining into it – usually a roof, yard, or driveway. They can be any shape, and can be natural or formal looking depending on the plants selected and the desire of the homeowner. Care must be taken to make sure that the garden will be sufficiently sized for the amount of water it needs to soak up. One way to approach a smaller rain garden is to dig up a small area near your downspout and observe it during a downpour. If there is no overflow and all of the water infiltrates quickly (within 2 or 3 hours) after the rain stops, it is okay to go ahead and plant it in that location. The soil in the rain garden should be modified to have higher infiltration rates and so it won’t compact like clay. A quick rule of thumb is to mix 1/3 sand, 1/3 topsoil, and 1/3 compost into the bottom of the garden area. Any size rain garden, even a small one, makes a difference. Start by making a difference in your yard; you’ll have an impact on your neighborhood, your watershed, local streams and lakes, and everybody that is downstream from you – all this with just one garden!
Be Water Wise!
4 Tips for a Successful Rain Garden
1. Do the research and plan. Don’t think you can just put in a rain garden on a whim. It takes careful thought and planning.
2. Location does matter. Make sure your garden is at least 10 feet away from the foundation of your house. Don’t plant it under trees, over septic systems or in areas where water might collect.
3. Work with your soil. Amend the soil to improve drainage in heavy soils and increase the water retention of porous soils.
4. Choose plants carefully. Be sure to pick varieties that tolerate both temporary flooding and drought.
So, you don’t want to plant a rain garden?
Here are some other ideas for conserving water: Install rain barrels and cisterns to capture water for use in the landscape. Use water from dehumidifiers or air conditioners to water container plants. Use drought-tolerant plants. Group moisture lovers together. Mulch soil to conserve moisture.
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