We’ve all the heard the expression, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Here’s the horticultural version: when life gives you rain, make a rain garden. Then watch the magic happen with pollinators, butterflies, birds, and blooms.
Compared to a patch of typical lawn, a rain garden allows about 30% more water to soak into the ground. That’s more water for the water table, and less pollution in our streams and rivers. Much of the pollution in our streams and rivers is carried there by storm water. A lot of that pollution comes from our homes and yards, such as fertilizer, pesticide, pet waste, failing septic systems, de-icing salts, heavy metals from roof shingles, and leaking fluids from machinery and automobiles.
Simply put, a rain garden is a collection of plants that doesn’t mind getting really wet sometimes; an attractive, environmentally healthy way to handle some of the pure and not-so-pure water that runs off your roof and property. All you need is s small depression in your yard that collects rain water.
Where to Put Your Rain Garden
Next time it rains, go out with your umbrella and see where the water is going. Watch which direction the water flows, where it is rushing over turf, where it settles. There may already be a depression in the ground where the water puddles. If so, remove the turf, expand the area if you want, and get started.
If water is not collecting anywhere, scout out a spot that will collect water if you dig a shallow depression in the ground – even 6” is enough. Keep it simple. It does not need to be lined with plastic, and you don’t need to bring in soil or gravel. A simple depression in the ground can suffice. You can even put it at the base of your downspout.
It will fill with a few inches of water during rainstorms, slowing run-off into storm drains, and allowing the water to slowly filter into the ground. Any plants you place in the path of the water as it runs across your yard will help slow the runoff. The water that collects in the rain garden will slowly re‐charge the groundwater table. As it seeps down to the groundwater table, pollution and impurities are filtered out.
What to Plant in Your Rain Garden
Fill the depression with an assortment of plants that can tolerate standing water for brief periods of time as well as dry spells. Your raingarden can be formally edged with stones, or it can blend gradually into the rest of your landscape. Just be sure it is far enough away from the foundation of your home that it does not cause basement seepage problems, and don’t locate it over a septic field.
Since the water in the garden will be there after rainstorms, but then dry out, you will need plants that can take soggy and dry soil. You can use all perennials, all shrubs, a few trees, or any combination.
The plants below can tolerate the short periods of standing water that occur in a rain garden, and won’t mind being drier if rain is scarce. Take note of whether you have sun or shade in your rain garden, and select the plants to match the sunlight.
The plants will provide visual delight through four seasons, and provide habitat for birds and butterflies as well. That’s a win‐win‐win‐win proposition!
Here’s a list of just a few of the plants that will work in a rain garden. Stop in the nursery today for more choices. There are MANY.
Redbud tree – Pink flowers, early spring.
FringeTree – Fragrant white fluffy bloom late spring.
Swamp Rose – Brambly carefree rose that sets hips in the fall that are relished by birds. Aggressive spreader, great for a large area.
Winterberry Holly – Drops its leaves and holds bright red berries through the winter. Berries provide food for birds.
Joe Pye – Mauve blooms that are butterfly magnets.
Swamp milkweed – Well behaved, fragrant milkweed that provides larval food for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.
Golden Alexander– Cheery yellow blooming perennial, moves about by seed and fill in gaps in the moist garden.
Boneset – White flowers, loved by pollinators.
Cardinal flower – Red flowers.