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Why Plant a Rain Garden?

Updated: Apr 3

Did you know that rain gardens can improve drainage & water flow in your landscape, help clean local waterways, and attract and support wildlife? Not to mention, they're beautiful and low to no maintenance!

Photo courtesy the EPA

Rain gardens can be developed or naturally occur in an area of lower elevation in your landscape, where there is typically a visual depression and/or obvious blockage to quick drainage. This area then collects excess water from your roof, driveway or streets, or other areas of the yard that drain into the depression, and the plant roots and soil filter and soak up the water. Rather than spending lots of money and time re-landscaping and trying to install drains for the area, the rain garden alternative involves planting a variety of shrubs, grasses and perennials that enjoy having ‘wet feet’. Rain gardens may have a small amount of standing water during storms and a couple of days following, but most of the time they are relatively dry. They can be essential tools in filtering pollutants from runoff and providing important wildlife habitats, and are overall extremely low-maintenance once established.

One of the tenants of gardeners who plant a lot of native plants is the ‘right plant in the right place’, meaning that rather than endlessly trying to change your existing soils, you should instead work with the micro-environments that already exist in your yard. After years of attempting to convert a consistently moist area of my front yard (due to a fire pit blocking the natural drainage, water was pooling in this area), I decided that I would accept that it wanted to be a rain garden and plant species that would do well in that habitat. I had imagined that a rain garden as the key feature of my yard would feel a bit messy, and not very colorful or as physically appealing. But once I researched a bit and began experimenting, I found a wide array of beautiful native and pollinator-friendly species that provide color and texture all season!

Photo courtesy the NC Cooperative Extension


1) Help keep our waterways clean

A critical benefit of rain gardens is the filtration of groundwater and storm runoff so that water entering ditches and streams is cleaner. This helps protect the health of our waterways.

2). Reduce erosion and washout

Rain gardens can handle stormwater at the source, collecting runoff from your home or steeper areas of your yard, and decreasing the speed of water flowing over the land as it infiltrates, soaking up that excess. If your rain garden is placed appropriately in a depression of your yard where water naturally heads, minimal ditches (if any) are necessary, and most if not all, of that runoff can be stopped by the rain garden. Make sure to have a small berm (use the excess soil from digging holes while planting) on the far side to keep excess water in the rain garden while it absorbs. This means less erosion/washout of your other garden spaces and driveway, and therefore less loss of topsoil, mulch, and gravel.

3) Create habitat for wildlife of all kinds

If you are filling your rain garden with a majority of native plants and including a diversity of species, you will also be providing an excellent wildlife habitat! Birds and pollinators will appreciate the food and housing provided by rain gardens. For the best wildlife support as well as adequate space for filtration and water absorption, most rain gardens are around 100 - 300 square feet.

Rain gardens can be quite wet, with a bit of standing water for days after a lot of rainfall, but then have long periods of only being lightly moist or even dry. If planted densely, you won’t have areas of standing water for long periods as the roots will filter and soak up the water. This is also important when planting a native/majority native garden, as you want to plant the way these plants would naturally occur. Most wetland plants are used to growing densely and in a great diversity of species - this way they support one another structurally, and create a natural defense against invasives.


Perennials: Grasses including Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, and varied sedges and rushes, Turtlehead, Obedient Plant, Cardinal Flower, Swamp Milkweed, Bee Balm, Blue Flag and Louisiana Irises, Swamp Hibiscus, Joe Pye Weed, Black Eyed Susan, and Liatris are some of our favorites for beauty and wildlife support.

Shrubs: Buttonbush, New Jersey Tea, Willows, Spicebush, and Red twig Dogwoods can all handle moist soils, though planting them in a deep depression that gathers standing water for days may be a bit much. Try some of these at the edges of depressions rather than in the center, especially on the berm along the lower edge to help keep water collection in the rain garden.

Note many plants sold as marginal aquatics also work great in rain gardens, including:

Variegated Sweet Flag (one of our favorites for a pop of color in a rain garden)

Common Rush

Blue Arrows Rush (a lovely rich chalky blue color)

Corkscrew Rush (a super fun texture!)

Horsetail (a great naturalizer!)

Rain Lily (spreading, and featuring lovely blooms during rains!)

Bloody Dock (great color and also edible)

Water Celery (great color and also edible)

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