Kaninchen Farm

Working to live a more sustainable lifestyle.


What is A Rain Garden and Why You Need One

Posted by kaninchenrabbits@gmail.com on April 25, 2017 at 2:20 PM

What is a rain garden?

A rain garden is a depression that collects the rainwater. This can be water off of your roof, driveway, or even lawn. Rain gardens slow the water down, they filter it, and return it safely to the groundwater supply - all within 24-48 hours. Rain gardens can help improve the health of streams/rivers, reduce pollution, and can improve your property in many ways.


Why do you need one?

  • Do you have problem wet spots in your yard? These can be breeding mosquitos or making it difficult to mow.
  • Do you need to be able to utilize your yard that is otherwise difficult to manage due to hills, trenches/ditches, etc?
  • Do you want to utilize the rain water?
  • Do you want to capture, filter, and keep your storm run off out of the sewer system? In heavy rains these systems can back up and flood resulting in boil water advisories.
  • Do you want to garden, but need something that you can put in the shade that is good for the environment?
  • Do you want to reduce sidewalk and driveway flooding and wintertime ice?
  • Do you want to attract natural pollinators?
  • Do you think they look pretty?

All of the above are reasons to put in a rain garden, but there are many more reasons too. The key ones I want to point out are: difficulty mowing soggy wet spots, loss of space and potential growing space due to unfavorable (wet) conditions, mosquito and tick breeding grounds, and keeping the storm water out of the sewers. Our ground is so wet in one spot that we sink up to our ankles if we walk in it. This place is obviously difficult to mow, so the grass stays longer. This longer grass makes the temperature a bit more cool and is the perfect place for ticks. And all those places we walked? Those holes hold standing water where the mosquitos breed. This is clearly a problem spot, and the perfect place for our rain garden.

If you live in a place like Detroit, Chicago, or any city where the stormwater system (drains in the road that catch rain) is also the same as the wastewater system (where the water from your toilet goes), you’re at risk for flooding of sewage and a boil water advisory. In these places, all of the storm water goes down into the sewer system and it must all be treated at the water treatment plant to make it safe to dump. When heavy or continuous rains happen, the system cannot keep up and you get a mixture of raw untreated sewage and rainwater leaking out. This is a major health risk and one that can be helped by installing a rain garden to collect runoff from your impervious surfaces (roof, garage, driveway, sidewalk, etc). Rain gardens slow water down, they filter it, and return it safely to the groundwater supply.

Who cares and why?

Your county drain commissioner cares. All of the rain water needs to be slowed down, have the temperature reduced (hot water kills plants and fish), and filtered before it goes into the rivers and streams. How does it get there though? Through the stormwater system. The drainage system of your city can be one of a few different types, and in some cases becomes easily overloaded with continuous rain or heavy storms. Many places now require a plan from builders and housing developments on how they will handle the rainwater before they agree to allow building to take place. Other organizations that may be involved include the local watershed council, the watershed protection agency, and the extension office.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cares. Pollution and water runoff is a huge issue. As our cities and other impervious surfaces expand, the amount of runoff going right into our rivers is increasing. This decreases the amount and type of plant and fish species in our waterways.

Individuals care. Several individuals are interested in preserving native species and attracting pollinators. The bee populations are rapidly declining, and by putting plants that are suitable in your yard, you can help the populations to recover. The same goes for butterflies. Some species, like the Monarch need a specific plant to complete their lifecycle. This plant, Milkweed, is perfect in rain gardens. By planting Milkweed, you’re doing triple duty as a water steward, native species conservationist, and helping the insect population.


Can a rain garden be too small/big?

Every little bit helps. Even a small rain garden can be useful, but you need to take care. You need to have a plan in place for where that extra water will go when it overflows, and make sure it is done safely. In really small spaces, a rain barrel might be a better idea.

Rain gardens cannot be too big, but there are some things to consider. Look at the aesthetics. Will turning your entire front yard into a rain garden look good? Maybe not. Will turning a large portion of the backyard look good? It can. You’ll need to check with zoning and find out if you need something like a “native or wild yard” permit if you’re planning a large scale garden. You should also consider your neighbors who will have to look at the garden, and make sure you have a plan in place for maintenance and a proper plant volume (even a rain garden can be too crowded or have too few plants).

Where should you put one?

Generally rain gardens should be put 10’ from the house or other structures. You don’t want to put a rain garden somewhere where it could compromise wooden supports or fence posts, or where it is too close to the air conditioner or other things that need maintenance. You also need to consider your neighbor. It is not a good idea to put your rain garden 10’ from your house, but only 3’ from theirs. Consider their structures as well.

Look for low spots in your yard. Is there a natural dip in the lawn partway from the house that is always soggy? That’s the perfect place to put a rain garden. Is there a hill that you don’t like mowing? Put a rain garden on it. Is there a trench or ditch running on your property, that’s an excellent spot for a rain garden. One of the best ways to get water to your spot is a buried PVC pipe attached to the gutters. This will send the water from your roof right into the garden, helping to keep your driveway, sidewalk, and yard from flooding. 

Care & Maintenance

After your rain garden is dug and planted, maintenance mostly consists of weeding until the plants grow big enough to shade out the weeds. If you have any particularly aggressive plants, you may need to thin them out every so often. The drain pipe should have a cover on it to prevent small animals from nesting in it. It’s a good idea to clean that cover a couple of times a year to make sure there’s no leaves across it, etc. If you do not have a leaf guard, you may need to remove the cover and flush out any leaves that went down the gutters as well. In general, rain gardens are easy care and require little (1-4 hours per year) maintenance after the first year.


How does a rain garden help homesteaders?

Rain gardens can be very beneficial to homesteaders. There are 2 areas that I want to discuss today though: Crop space and Animals and Soil Erosion.

Crop Space

When I have a wet soggy spot in my yard, I can’t fully utilize it. I can’t plant fruits or vegetables there. That 80-200 sq ft space is useless to me. With a rain garden though, several plants will dry up that nearby soil so I can utilize the nearby space too. For instance, I’m losing out on about 160 sq ft of space in my garden area because it’s too wet and soggy. This area has expanded and is even under the corner of one of my raised beds and is rotting the wood. It’s a huge hassle. I am putting in a 12’x6’ (72 sq ft) rain garden. Even though the garden takes up some of that space, I’m gaining 88 sq ft of dry yard back, preserving my garden bed, and making it easier for myself to walk and mow. Even better is the fact that I can include edible and medicinal plants in my rain garden. I can put in a plant whose leaves repel flies to help in my house. I can put in a serviceberry or elderberry for fruit, and I can put in any number of medicinal herbs. I’m gaining dry ground all while increasing and diversifying my crops.

Animals and Soil Erosion

As we all know, animals eat the grass and vegetation around them. In the case of chickens, they also scratch up and destroy the roots of plants. Lack of vegetation leads to faster running water off slopes and soil erosion. Topography can cause places where the water pools. Without enough vegetation or the proper type of plants to soak up the pooled water, you’ll get swampy or permanently wet spots. This can be unsightly, difficult to manage (who wants to wade in a swamp to install fencing?), and unhealthy to both the animals (drinking unclean water can lead to disease) and the humans (mosquito breeding ground). The solution: in addition to reseeding the ground around the area, is to install a rain garden. Even if nothing changes in terms of % of surrounding vegetation, having the proper plants in a rain garden will soak up that water and eliminate the wet spot problem. Be sure to check for plants that are not toxic to your current and future animals. For example, if you might get goats in the future, don’t plant milkweed. Also make sure that the plants you choose are resistant to the animals so your flock won’t view the rain garden as a buffet. Some chicken resistant plants include iris, ostrich fern, and columbine. Ducks will eat the ostrich ferns though.

Plant List w/photos

See the rain garden page (coming soon) for photos and lists of plants that work well in rain gardens.

Categories: Rain Garden, Garden, Herbs

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