Good for the Earth: How to Make a Rain Garden

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What Is a Rain Garden?

A rain garden is a plant-filled low level area of land to which rain waters flow and are absorbed by the ground within 48 hours.

What It Is Not

A rain garden is:

  • Not constantly wet, therefore it's not a pond, swamp, marsh, or wetland
  • Not a "minimum" size
  • Not a plant-void pile of rocks
  • Not necessarily connected to downspouts, pipes, or underground plumbing
  • Not a mosquito breeding place

What Great Thing Do Rain Gardens Do?

Rain gardens divert rainwater from directly entering a municipal stormwater system or from directly flowing across surfaces into streams and rivers and temporarily holds it and cleans it.

You may ask: so what? Is rain going into sewers and rivers bad?

Answer: Sometimes yes. Hard to believe, but it can be bad.

Two Ways Rainwater Can Travel

How Rain Can Be Bad?

In urban, suburban, and built-up communities, developers and citizens never imagined how much land would be covered with concrete.

They also never imagined how many people would crowd into these living spaces.

Furthermore, our forebears could not imagine a number of things, such as:

  • How many fossil-fuel powered vehicles there would be
  • How much air pollution and water pollution could occur
  • How much soil erosion near streams and rivers would exist

But, now we are where we are.

Rain falling on these areas washes across dirty rooftops, driveways, patios, parking lots, roads, and other impervious surfaces picking up asphalt bits, motor oil and all sorts of filth. It rushes into storm drains and, from there, directly into streams and rivers, carrying pollutants picked up along the route. Another "baddy" is torrential rain rushing across fertilized farm fields directly into rivers, carrying fertilizer (bad for the waterway, as the Chesapeake Bay has found) or carrying good topsoil and sediment away from the fields (bad for the farm.)

How Does a Rain Garden Clean Water?

Two things happen:

  1. Like a game of tag, the low-lying rain garden catches the dirty rainwater. It holds it long enough that the polluted water is absorbed into the garden's ground right there - so that the plants can do there magic.
  2. The roots of the plants in the garden are virtual sponges, and the mulch layer is a filter. Rain gardens trap up to 90% of nutrients and non-nutritional chemicals in the rainwater and up to 80% of sediments from rainwater. The "pollution chemicals" are removed from the water.

Rain Gardens Have Natural Cleaners: Plant Roots

How Does a Rain Garden Reduce Floods?

Again, two wonderful things happen:

  1. The low-lying rain garden catches the rainwater. The water can't rush into the streets, low areas under train trestles that always flood, or the streams that rise above flood stage. The rain garden holds the water long enough that it is absorbed into the garden's ground.
  2. The water seeps through the special soil and the sand or gravel layer into the subsoil. From there, the rain slowly recharges aquifers, groundwater, and wells just as it used to do hundreds of years ago before the invasion of concrete and macadam.

Hey Rain, Gotcha!

Let's Build One!

Absolute first step is ....

Call 811 Before Choosing Rain Garden Location!

In the United States, the phone number 811 connects you to a center which alerts all your local utilities to visit your property and spray paint (it washes away) the ground wherever their underground lines are.

You absolutely, positively do not want to interfere with underground electricity, communications cables, or natural gas lines. Otherwise, you will have (past tense) worked on your Eternal Rest Garden, instead of a rain garden.

In other countries, please do what is appropriate to learn where the safe, soil only spots are on your property.

Where to Place a Rain Garden

Generally agreed guidelines:

  • Ten or more feet away from buildings (you don't want deterioration of a foundation)
  • Not on top of utility lines, a septic tank, or a well
  • Not where it's always soggy and never dries up (this may be due to bedrock or clay which will not allow water to "percolate" [be absorbed] into the ground)
  • Not where it hits tree roots

Ten Feet Away

How Deep?

18 to 30 inches.

Dig to a depth of 18 to 30 inches but don't have the perimeter drop off like the deep end of a swimming pool. The edges should gently slope up to the natural ground level.

Connect or Don't Connect to a Downspout

Either way works if the location requirements are met. There are a few people with a strong preference for having pipes bringing roof drainage from a downspout to the garden. However, this is a matter for each homeowner to decide. The layout of the land, walkways, and structures will weigh on what is practical and aesthetically pleasing.

See the diagrams below for both designs.

With Downspout Extension to the Rain Garden

A Swale Guides Water to Rain Garden

Supplies and Steps

  1. Dig at your chosen location and save a little less than half of that soil for step 3
  2. Line the bottom of the depression with a layer of small gravel or coarse sand 4 to 8 inches deep.
  3. Make a mixture of the saved garden soil and compost.
  4. On top of the sand or gravel, fill the depression with this mixture to a level about 5 inches below the natural ground level and plant your vegetation in it.
  5. Spread mulch over all to a height ending about 2 inches below the natural ground level. The reason for having the mulch below the lip of the depression is to keep it in the garden even. As water fills the depression, usually mulch will float. You don't want the mulch to lift up out of the depression to be washed away.
  6. Optional: line the edge of the rain garden with large decorative stones.
  7. Optional: guide the pipe (if you are using one) to permanent placement past the edge and into the rain garden so that water flows inside.

Water Flows Easily to Rain Garden at a Natural Low Point

Plant Choices and Placement

You are encouraged to use native plants that can handle wetness and drought. This certainly reduces the amount of care and maintenance you'll have later. In addition, native plants give food and habitat to your native bugs, butterflies, birds, and critters.

Also, you should use potted plants or bare-root plants, not seeds. Seeds could wash away before getting established as plants.

Follow garden design principles. Putting taller plants and grasses in the center of the garden and encircle with smaller and shorter plants so that you can see and enjoy every plant.

Some designers feel that you should not put a tree or bush in a rain garden. This is so flexible, depending on your region, the overall area of the garden, and more. Please consult local experts when you are seriously selecting your rain garden plants.

Plants Must Handle Wet and Dry Conditions

A Great Shovel

Regional Variations

It is amazing what differences exist around the world in expectations for water absorption and what plants will succeed. As you explore creating your own rain garden, you will find many resources online and perhaps in your government.

In the United States, you can consult land grant colleges, agricultural extension services, and county, state, and federal conservation departments, to name a few. In other areas, finding government entities and charities which support water conservation may be your best bet.

Rain Soaking on Plants


  • Home | NRCS
  • The Beneficial Beauty of Rain Gardens – The Native Plant Herald
  • Beautiful, hard-working Rain Gardens
  • UConn Rain Gardens "How To" Guide
  • Rain Gardens

Hooray For You!

By putting a rain garden on your land, you have:

  1. filtered pollutants
  2. recharged groundwater
  3. conserved water
  4. protected waterways
  5. removed standing water from your yard
  6. reduced mosquito breeding
  7. reduced potential of home flooding
  8. increased beneficial insects that eliminate pests
  9. given habitat to birds and butterflies
  10. survived drought season
  11. reduced garden maintenance
  12. enhanced property value

(All these benefits are from a publication of the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Caribbean Area.)

© 2019 Maren Elizabeth Morgan

Watch the video: Installing Rain Gardens to Reduce Runoff

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