Rain Gardens – Local Solutions

I love the idea of rain gardens! Instead of expecting a government bureaucracy to spend my tax money to fix water quality problems, I can do something within my own yard that reduces the nutrients flowing into the watershed. So what is a rain garden? It’s just an area that will hold the rain water for a few hours–allowing it to percolate into the ground–that is planted with pretty things that don’t mind getting wet.

There are lots of sites out there now that can tell you how to build a rain garden; an internet search for “how to build a rain garden” returned almost 400,000 links. Some rain garden sites worth checking can be found here, here, and here, but there are lots more.

Rain garden (2014)
Rain garden in the Allen Centennial Gardens on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
A couple of key points are that the soil does have to percolate so the water drains and you want water from other areas, such as your roof, driveway, road, etc., to drain into it. That means you’ll likely have to do a little grading and drainage testing, but it’s also an opportunity to get rid of some lawn and reduce the mowing requirements.

So, what do you plant? That’s where things get a bit location specific. You need plants that will work in your area. Plants that work in a rain garden in Texas are not the same plants to put in a garden in Connecticut. Luckily, the University of Connecticut NEMO program has been expanding their rain garden app. While the app started out covering Connecticut, it has been expanded to cover the mid-Atlantic coast and master gardeners from more states are working to get plant information added. It also has functions to help you plan how big a garden is right for your drainage area by tapping out the corners on a map, which makes it a lot easier for a homeowner. In many states, the Cooperative Extension Service also provides valuable resources on suitable plants.

Small rain garden at the Chesapeake Bay Program
A small rain garden to handle storm water in a parking lot at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Of course, the idea of a rain garden isn’t limited to homes. It’s also a viable and attractive approach to reducing storm water runoff from commercial sites. Places that seek to reduce specific pollutants or need to protect drinking water may need to put a lot more thought into the design of the rain garden. The experiences in Redmond, Washington, and a report on nutrient reduction findings by the USGS are good places to start.

The best thing about a rain garden is, you can improve the aesthetics of your area and at the same time improve the waterways for all of us. As soon as I can get the proper permit (from my wife), I’m planning to do my bit to improve the environment. I hope you will too.

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