How to Add a Rain Garden

How to Add a Rain Garden

Rain gardens help reduce water runoff from your property to help cut down on pollution that would otherwise find its way into local rivers and streams. About five years ago some local Facebook groups (sigh) became collectively enraged by the idea of rain gardens, so I decided to research them a bit more...and it turns out, they're relatively simple to install and do a lot of good for a little money! (Who knew that collective rage on Facebook could ever be misguided?)


Why Add a Rain Garden?

Heavy rainfalls can lead to pollution in our rivers and streams, flooding, elevated nitrate levels and plenty of other issues. While urban and suburban areas are often filled with paved areas and grassy lawns, even a small rain garden can make a big impact on cutting down on the harmful effects of flash flooding. 

Rain gardens help keep our drinking water safe and clean by absorbing rainfall to help prevent the rain from carrying pollutants to local waterways. Like most of my research into sustainable landscaping, Ohio State's resources came in handy for this project. I recommend checking out the Ecological Engineering Society Rain Garden as a jumping off point in your rain garden adventure.

Our house is situated at the top of a slope (I'm endlessly grateful for the architect who designed and built our house for himself in 1954 and made a lot of smart, eco-friendly decisions that still help us nearly 70 years later.) So we have a lot of natural depressions already in place that work well for rain gardens. 

Where to Add a Rain Garden? 

I chose a space between my office and the street that often gets quite a bit of roof runoff. That sounds so simple as I type it now, but it would be difficult to overstate how much thought and research went into what now seems like a pretty simple decision. I read dozens of books and researched plenty of websites before I finally landed on this spot in our yard. Here are some of the rain garden resources I found especially helpful: 

Ultimately the space I chose for our rain garden worked out really well, but it did take quite a bit of dirt moving to get the grade of the slope to match the recommendations I read online. Also, don't forget to call before you dig! In Ohio, before you dig call 811 to make sure your well-intentioned rain garden doesn't turn into an ecological disaster.

What to Add to Your Rain Garden?

As with all things landscaping, the first thing that all of my resources suggested is to understand what purpose I wanted for my rain garden. I knew that I wanted to reduce rain runoff to help the environment. But another important feature for our new rain garden, as well as anything I add to the yard when I remove grass, is to provide an additional habitat for bees, birds and butterflies. My general goal is to increase beneficial insects while decreasing breeding spots for mosquitoes, so this played largely into my decisions on what to put into the rain garden. 

One of my biggest takeaways from the 2019 Ohio State University Pollinator Summit was the importance of providing bees with food, water and shelter throughout as much of the year as possible. So I knew I wanted native plants beneficial to bees and butterflies that ideally would start flowering in the spring and continue producing flowers through late fall. 

Some of the most helpful resources in making planting decisions were local websites, like the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District

Image found on the Warren Co. SWCD website, originally shared on the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council website

Plants that are native to your region with deep roots are crucial to your rain garden's success. Native plants are naturally drought and flood-resistant, which means less work and a higher likelihood of your plants thriving. 

This quick guide to native plants for rain gardens from the Central Ohio Rain Garden Initiative was incredibly helpful for me in choosing what to add to our rain garden. Fortunately, our local nursery, Oakland, also has sections dedicated to rain garden plants and native plants to make decisions even easier. 

Here are a few of the plants that ultimately landed in our rain garden: 

  • Blue Flag Iris
  • Milkweed
  • Prairie Blazing Star
  • Wild Quinine
  • New England Aster
  • Foxglove Beardtongue
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • Ironweed
  • Goldenrod
  • Coneflowers
  • Native grasses and sedges

How to Take Care of Your Rain Garden

Honestly, once your rain garden is established, you shouldn't need to do much upkeep. I mulched our rain garden for the first year, but the plants have grown in so densely in the years since that mulching beyond the natural collection of leaves isn't really necessary. I do need to pull weeds a few times a year in the rain garden, but that may even decrease over time as more of the plants continue to fill out the space. 

Just for Fun, Add a Rain Chain

I decided to add a little rain chain and little "reading nook" to our rain garden, too. The rain chain sends additional water to the rain garden and provides a pretty alternative to a downspout. I recommend this simple rain chain tutorial largely because I appreciate the use of a planter with PVC pipes as a simple way to divert more water directly into our rain garden. 

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