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5 Steps to Build a Serene Rain Garden

Pretty and practical, this landscaping technique is also good for the environment

A rain garden

Rain Dog Designs, Gig Harbor, Washington

En español | Creating a rain garden in your yard can be good for the environment, cut down on lawn maintenance and bring beauty to what might otherwise be a soggy patch of earth.

Planted in depressions in the landscape where water tends to pool, rain gardens fit into your topography: Choose colorful native wildflowers for a cottage garden or grasses and sedges for a contemporary presentation. The goal is to capture stormwater runoff and divert it into the garden to solve a landscape problem, turning an eyesore into an attractive focal point.

Rain gardens aren't like a water feature or pond that stays wet. They filter more water into the ground instead of storm drains, keeping toxins such as fertilizer and pesticides from going into the stormwater system. By removing standing water in the yard, they also reduce mosquito breeding and create valuable habitat for birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

"With climate change, our weather is becoming more extreme so we have longer periods of drought and, when it does rain, it can be much heavier,” says Leslie Uppinghouse, horticulturalist for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. “In the past, people would use French drains or berms, and rain gardens are an extension of that process … to slow the movement of water down."

Thanks to rain gardens’ environmental benefits, several cities offer cost-share programs to encourage homeowners to establish them. Homeowners in Northfield, Minnesota, can be reimbursed for 50 percent of the cost of their rain gardens, for example, and in Lincoln, Nebraska, homeowners who install rain gardens are eligible for a rebate of up to $2,000 for “rainscaping” projects. Check with your local government to see if there's a similar program in your area.

In addition to myriad environmental benefits, the native plants that thrive in rain gardens also make them an attractive addition to the landscape.

Follow these five steps to create a rain garden in your landscape.

1. Pick the right location

Look for spots where rain pools. You might want to capture water running off the roof or choose a location further afield and direct downspouts toward the rain garden. Rain gardens should be located at least 10 feet from the house to prevent saturated soil from threatening the foundation.

Mitch Woodward, extension agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension at North Carolina State University, advises against choosing an area that never dries out, explaining, “A rain garden is not a wetland or a swamp that stays wet all the time. It's designed to receive water and then dry out."

A rain garden showing plants

Courtesy Karen Regis

2. Start digging

Prepare the site by removing all of the grass and digging out the area until the center is the lowest point and the sides form a gentle slope toward the middle to create a berm around the perimeter that ensures the garden will hold water in when it rains.

To test the infiltration, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends turning on a hose or sprinkler for up to 60 minutes to see how fast the water soaks in. If the water doesn't soak into the soil within 24 hours, remove up to four inches of soil and add compost or sand to improve drainage. A well-designed rain garden should be able to filter up to one inch of rainfall in four hours, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Surround the edges of the rain garden with landscape rocks to help collect the water, prevent erosion and hold the ground in place, Uppinghouse adds.


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A rain garden in a front yard

Rain Dog Designs, Gig Harbor, Washington

3. Pick the right plants

Rain gardens are designed to capture rainwater, so plants must be able to withstand periods of both deluge and drought. Native plants that have evolved to local climates and can handle moisture extremes are the best choices for rain gardens.

While the specific plants you choose will depend on your region, Uppinghouse suggests grasslike sedges and mosses for the lowest point in the rain garden; as the banks rise, the plants will get larger and, from bottom to top, could include irises and obedient plants with woody species like buttonbush and beautyberry closer to the banks.

"People that like plants really enjoy rain gardens because … it gives them an opportunity to learn about new types of plants that grow and flourish in wet areas and can be used to beautify” the landscape, Woodward says.

Not sure what's native to your area? The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center maintains a searchable native plant database to help you find the best options for your site. Woodward also suggests contacting extension agents and native plant nurseries for recommendations.

4. Maintain what you've created

A rain garden in a yard

Courtesy Allison Weiss

Although rain gardens are low maintenance compared to other landscape features, regular maintenance is important. You might need to water the garden during the first year until the plants are established. Each season, add mulch — and replenish as needed — to help retain moisture and block weeds; pull weeds and remove dead plants to keep your rain garden looking its best.

5. Reap the rewards

Rain gardens are attractive landscape features with myriad environmental benefits; adding one to your yard allows you to admire the plants and boost your curb appeal while having a positive impact on the ecosystem.

Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.

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