What is a Rain Garden and How do You Design It?

Water might be vital, but too much of it can undermine the very foundations of your home. If you’re tired of dealing with a damp basement or a soggy yard, then say hello to your new savior, the rain garden. Rain gardens provide an effective solution to a host of drainage problems, filtering run off and creating a beautiful little oasis in the process.

The best way to think about a rain garden is as a “plant pond”, a type of garden planted with the kind of plants that’ll help water seep quickly into the soil, directing it away from your house and eliminating any chance of it causing bother. Rainwater is directed from gutter downspouts via a channel (sometimes referred to as a swale), or plastic piping. The garden catches the water and quickly, efficiently, and safely drains it into the soil.

Designing a rain garden isn’t a complicated process; with just a little know-how, you can create an easy-to-maintain, environmentally friendly garden that’ll do as much for your drainage problems as it does for the local wildlife.

Key Points for Designing a Rain Garden

As Gardening Know How notes, before you start installing your rain garden, there are a few key pointers to bear in mind.

  • Position: When it comes to positioning your rain garden, there’s a couple of main things to think about. Firstly, distance from both your home and septic system. Ideally, the garden should be at least 15 feet from the house to help draw water away from it, and around 10 feet or more from the septic tank to avoid interfering with its operation. Secondly, rain gardens should be built in a low spot, so aim to create it in the lowest part of the garden.
  • Conditions: Rain gardens do best with at least some sun, so avoid placing it in a fully shaded part of the garden and aim to create it in an area that benefits from full or partial sun.
  • Soil: As Better Homes and Gardens advises, rain gardens work best with clay soils that’ll hold water while allowing it to drain slowly away. If you’re not sure what kind of soil you’re dealing with, it’s worth stumping up the small fee for a soil test. If you turn out to have sandy soil, counterbalance it with some water-absorbing compost and topsoil.
  • Size: While the size of your rain garden will be largely determined by personal preference and the size of your yard, remember that the larger the rain garden, the more water it can hold.
  • Depth: Rain gardens usually measure between around 4 inches and 10 inches deep, with the depth determined by how much water you need the garden to hold, how wide you want the garden to be (as a general rule. the less width your garden has, the deeper it’ll need to be), and the type of soil you have (if you have clay soil, you’ll need to go deeper than if you have sandy soil).
  • Construction: Once you’ve decided on the size, width, and depth of the garden, you can start digging. If the rain garden is on a level surface, build a berm from the dug-up soil around ¾ of the bed. If the garden is on a slope, build the berm on the lower end of the slope. Once you’ve finished digging, the next step will be to connect a downspout to the rain garden using either swale or an underground pipe.
  • Plants: If you want your rain garden to work effectively, getting the plant choice right is crucial. Key to success is choosing plants that thrive in wet conditions. You might also want to consider planting seedlings rather than seeds, which have a habit of washing away. Although a rainwater garden is the perfect place to introduce plenty of color and variety, it’s recommended you turn around a third to a half of the garden over to native grasses, sedges, and rushes: their deep root systems make them perfect for the purpose. You might also find it beneficial to choose hardy marginal plants like the ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna, obedient plant, scarlet rose mallow, yellow flag iris, and cardinal flower that typically grow around the edges of ponds: as well as flourishing in wet conditions, they’ll weather the occasional dry spell as well. Other plants worthy of consideration include: cinnamon fern, dwarf cornel, grass-leaved goldenrod, heath aster, Jack-in-the-pulpit, prairie blazingstar (Liatris), milkweed, black-eyed Susan, Virginia mountain mint, tufted hairgrass, white false indigo, white turtlehead, and Ohio goldenrod.

Top Tips for Your Rain Garden

Now you’ve designed and installed your rain garden, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to take care of it. While rain gardens are wonderfully low maintenance, a little bit of tender loving care in the first year will set it up for life. Most of the work involves ensuring that the garden doesn’t become either too wet or too dry: while neither is likely to present too much of a problem when the garden’s matured, seedlings can be especially vulnerable to both. Keep to the following advice and you’ll soon have a garden to be proud of.

Add Plenty of Mulch

As Family Handy Man recommends, mulching is key for the first year of your rain garden’s life. Stick to a hardwood mulch (anything else risks being washed away), and make sure to pull away any weeds before they take root.

Protect Baby Plants

Until your plants have matured, protect them from washing away during heavy rainfall by adding some large rocks to the garden’s entrance and by digging a notch on the low side of the berm.

Water During Dry Spells

It may sound perverse, but you may occasionally need to water your rain garden. During dry weather, an inch of water per week will be needed.


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