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Build a Rain Garden

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Photo by Stephanie Staton

Areas in your yard prone to puddling are usually the perfect spot to install a rain garden.

There are several options for locating your rain garden. Some gardens are built to capture water from the roof, redirecting it away from the storm drain and into a rain garden. Some are built to intercept water before it reaches the superhighway of an impermeable surface. A spot in the yard where water is already collecting can be enhanced with soil amendments and plantings that beautify the spot while supporting the percolation of slower-moving water.

Whether you create a rain garden using an existing low spot or by diverting rainwater runoff, the whole purpose is to create a shallow depression that captures some of the water, allowing it to slowly percolate into the ground. Depressions are generally 6 to 8 inches deep with amended soil, compost and mulch.

Check Below the Surface.

Contact your local utility companies to check for underground water, gas and electrical services. You can also call 811 or visit the website for information about how to have your utility lines marked for free. Making this call will reduce the risk of personal injury or property damage caused by digging and accidentally hitting a utility line.

Be Mindful of the Landscape.

Hunt notes that the large swales across backyards may be intentional design features to redirect water from yards toward storm drains. Changing or cutting into a swale may actually cause unintended water flow larger than your garden is capable of holding because you will be drawing water from yards up-slope of your own.

Assess Soil Drainage.

Dig an 8-inch hole in your intended location as a simple percolation test. Saturate the soil by filling the hole with water. When the hole is empty, refill it with water again, and record how long it takes to drain. If water drains away in a few hours, you have a good site for a rain garden.

Prepare Your Soil.

Is your soil sandy, loamy or mostly clay? (You’ll be able to tell when you dig your percolation-test hole) Clay soils take longer to drain water, while sandy soils may move water too quickly. You may need to consider adding soil or compost in order to create conditions suitable for encouraging percolation in your rain garden.

Horticulture and garden centers offer soil-amendment mixes specific to your area and can provide suggestions for getting the right soil balance to support water capture, retention and infiltration as well as the native plant species you’ll want to include in the garden.

Design Your Garden.

Track down a rain-garden template for your region that provides design ideas as well as native plant species lists. Your county cooperative extension office and garden centers should be good resources. Templates demonstrate how to use an existing area of ponding or a depression intentionally constructed to capture water.

If you’re constructing a new bed, create a berm along the lower perimeter using soil you removed in making the depression. If you’re careful in removing grass to create the depression, you can reinstall it as sod on the berm to slow water arriving into the garden.

Cahail points out the importance of delineating or edging a rain-garden bed. He suggests limestone edging to set the garden apart as both natural and intentional.

“Neighbors will appreciate the sense of framing and good boundaries,” he says.

Hunt recommends delaying planting until you’ve had time to observe one or two rain events and their impact on your new bed. Observe how long water lingers, as this will influence which plants you choose. Some plants prefer or tolerate having soggy, wet roots for part of the season. Other plants will support the system from the perimeter or higher and dryer parts of the rain garden.

“Homeowners often choose their design with maintenance in mind,” says Hunt. “There are higher- and lower-intensity rain gardens. None are maintenance-free because they are still a specialized feature in the landscape.” Depending on the design and plantings you choose, you may need to weed, seasonally cut back some plantings, and rake leaves and debris out of the depression.

Woods recommends contacting your local extension office about available class offerings for rain-garden installation. Also, “visit someone’s rain garden and ask if their garden is working the way they want it to,” she suggests.

Rain gardens take one to three years to develop their full beauty. During the first year, the rain garden’s plants may need extra water to survive, particularly if installed during the summer months, when it tends to be hotter and dryer.

“Rain gardens are something you can build on over time,” Cahail says. “You can get all technical, but you don’t have to. Maybe you just capture 1/4 of an inch of rain at a time, reducing what’s going into the sewer system or dumping down the driveway. By saving and directing it, you are accomplishing something.” Even the smallest yard can be a site for a rain-garden feature.

Urban dwellers without a yard can still be involved in rain gardens. Witty suggests connecting with public schools, libraries and municipal buildings to find a location for installing a rain garden. Public spaces are great locations for rain gardens because they are beautiful, attract wildlife, and serve as an educational tool about native plants and stormwater runoff and mitigation.

About the Author: Deb Buehler is a professional writer who grew up on a hobby farm in central Indiana where she developed a deep appreciation for the environment. Today, she lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Craig, growing vegetables, keeping bees and playing with their dogs, Abby and Tucker.  

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Give us your opinion on Build a Rain Garden.
Submit Comment »
I have an area in which I believe rain gardening would succeed. Thanks for an informative article.
SteveSWAlabama, Atmore, AL
Posted: 8/4/2015 8:15:30 AM
For more information on rain gardens and to download a free copy of the Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey, check out www.water.rutgers.edu
RCEWaterResourcesProgram, New Brunswick, NJ
Posted: 7/6/2011 1:53:36 PM

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