Gardeners can face many challenges on their property—poor soil conditions, steep slopes, invasive plants, roots that produce juglone, insect and four-legged pest issues, among others. A rain garden addresses the challenge posed by heavy rainstorms, especially if they consistently leave a wet area on your property. The garden can also absorb the water from your rain barrel overflow and downspouts, and filter water before it reaches the sewer system. Not only is a rain garden a practical solution for a gardener, it also helps the environment at large.
This article is going to dive into rain garden benefits, as well as how to go about planning for a typical residential rain garden. It will also offer some suggestions on what to plant.
What is a rain garden?
During every big rainfall, as water flows down driveways and sidewalks, and off rooftops, it washes everything it encounters in its path—chemicals, fertilizer, dirt, road salt—into storm drains, as well as into our lakes, rivers, and streams. A rain garden is a shallow depression or basin (referred to as a swale or bioswale), typically filled with native perennials and groundcovers, that holds and slowly filters some of that rainwater. It captures and holds rainwater runoff from patios, downspouts, pathways, and the downpour itself.
When I was researching Gardening Your Front Yard, I liked the way certified fusion landscape professional Mike Prong described a swale. He likened it to digging a pool in the sand at the beach and then diverting the water along a channel to another pool.
A rain garden can also feature a dry creek bed (also referred to as an arroyo) as part of the design. This also helps to divert and slow the water from a deluge.
According to the Groundwater Foundation, a rain garden can remove up to 90 per cent of nutrients and chemicals, and up to 80 per cent of sediments from stormwater runoff, and allow for 30 per cent more water to soak into the ground than a traditional lawn.
Rain garden benefits
There are several benefits to having a rain garden on your property. I think the best one is knowing you’re doing your part to help your local environment. Also, there isn’t a lot of ongoing maintenance required once the rain garden has been built!
- Provide the water from your downspouts with a place to go (if they’re not diverted into a rain barrel). Or, manage the overflow of your rain barrel.
- Remove impervious surfaces so that excess water has a place to go during heavy rain events.
- Allow you to see where the water is going and make changes accordingly if there’s an issue.
- Help to minimize flooding.
- Manage consistently wet areas of your property.
- Keep your basement and foundation of your house safe by diverting water away from it.
- Filter rain into the ground to minimize water pollution from it being washed into sewers, creeks, streams, etc.
- Attract beneficial insects and other important wildlife to your garden with the biodiversity you create via plant selection.
- Prevent polluted rainwater from reaching streams, creeks, and other waterways.
It’s worth noting the intention is not for the garden to hold the water indefinitely like a pond. It’s meant to drain. I mention this because of concerns some may have about mosquito-borne illnesses, like the West Nile virus, and not leaving standing water on the property. It should take no more than 48 hours for the garden to drain.
How to build a rain garden
Before you plan to do any digging, move earth around, or change the grade of your property in any way, I would recommend consulting a professional and also making sure you know where any underground utilities are located (check with your municipality or utility companies to see if they offer a “call before you dig” program). Even if you want to do the bulk of the work, a professional can guide you with a drawing and some instruction, so you’re not inadvertently diverting water to a neighbour’s property or towards your home.
A rain garden doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. It can be anywhere from 100 to 300 square feet and you’ll want to place it at least 10 feet away from the house. An infiltration test, which determines how fast the water drains through your soil, will alert you to any issues. It shouldn’t take longer than 48 hours to drain.
The rain garden “dish” is generally amended with good-quality soil and compost, and sometimes sand. You want to make sure the soil is absorbent. After everything is planted, a layer of mulch helps with maintenance (especially during that first year) as plants fill in, by keeping weeds down, enriches the soil, and limits evaporation.
Other elements that can help with properly capturing stormwater include permeable pavers for both pathways and driveways, as well as installing a rain barrel, so you can save the water for your garden (if it’s permissible in your area).
What to plant
When you’re making a list of rain garden plants, look for native plants. These options will have adapted to the conditions in your region. These will also attract beneficial insects and support wildlife, and are generally pretty low maintenance. Once plants become established, deep root systems help with the filtration process and work to absorb nutrients.
You’ll want to consider plants for the parts of the rain garden that hold the most water. Keep in mind that different plants will be added to the sides, which tend to be drier. Look for double-duty plants that can tolerate heavy rains as well as drought, such as Pee Wee hydrangeas and Invincibelle Spirit smooth hydrangea, coneflowers, Phlox paniculata, fountain grasses, globe thistle, etc.
Native plant resources
U.S.: Native Plant Finder
Other eco-minded articles and ideas
- Fusion gardening: Blending eco-friendly design elements into a traditional landscape
- Spring garden cleanup done right
- Six reasons to NOT clean up your garden in the fall
- Types of bees commonly found in yards and gardens
- The onslaught of introduced insects and why it will change everything
Great information. Thanks!
David Liska says
already incorporate many native plants in my garden and have rain barrels to store rain water for the dry days
Hi Tara. Would this work in boggy, very wet backyards? My husband wants to dig a trench across the width of our back yard, and lay a storm water pipe out to the street to divert rainwater run-off to improve the quality of the soil and lawn. My concern is that the ground above will continue to remain wet, damp & swampy following the new-normal heavy and more frequent rainfalls we’re getting in our changing climate. I like the concept of creating a rain garden instead, but worry that we don’t get a lot of surface run-off to warrant a fence-to-fence “dish” since it mostly seems to sit underground and on the surface. Your help with this dilemma is greatly appreciated. Many thanks.
Tara Nolan says
Hi Heather, Honestly, I would get a professional to advise you on what to do, even if you and your husband end up doing the work. A garden with strategically selected, water-loving plants may be more effective at filtering that rain water, rather than it burdening the sewer system. But also you don’t want to inadvertently make the problem worse! A professional will be able to assess where that water is coming from and how best to capture or divert it. Best of luck!
Wendi S says
Can you plant edibles in a rain garden? Or do they need to be non-edible because the pollution in the rainwater? But if people are saving the polluted rainwater in their rain barrels to water their vegetable gardens, what is the difference? This whole concept is new to me and I am confused. The article was great and helped a lot but I’m still confused on this one point.
Tara Nolan says
Hi Wendi, Though rain gardens are intended to drain well, there is still the potential that they could hold water for a short period of time. Most veggies don’t enjoy wet feet, so it’s better to choose plants that will thrive in moist soils.