Don’t Blame It On the Rain: How to Design a Rain Garden

Well-designed rain gardens will add both beauty and function to the landscape. This brilliant hibiscus is just one of many plants that love to soak up stormwater.

Be water-wise and eco-smart this spring by installing a rain garden in your yard. A rain garden, essentially, is a miniature watershed. Capturing runoff from hard surfaces (roof, driveway, concrete, asphalt, etc.), it slows water flow and allows rain water to be absorbed into the soil close to where the rain falls, and it also helps to recharge groundwater instead of the water flowing downhill to become a destructive force elsewhere. Often, stormwater (excess surface water after a storm) overwhelms municipal sewer drains, picking up pollutants as it flows, and reaching streams and creeks where it causes more havoc such as sediment pollution, nutrient pollution (nitrogen from fertilizers and other yucky stuff), and erosion problems. These things ultimately cause perils to our drinking water and to wildlife inhabiting the waterways.

My own rain garden looks great alongside the meadow in the front yard. That tall plant in the center, common mullein, is sometimes considered a weed, but I think it’s beautiful when it blooms, plus it can be used as an herbal remedy and for making natural dyes. The rain garden extends from two points of drainage — a downspout and a patio. My husband, Bob, and I installed our rain garden in just a few hours on a hot afternoon. Bob’s advice would be to spread out the work over a few days. (photos by Bob Farley)

By considering these simple environmental concepts, you can better deal with your own site issues. Do you have an erosion-damaged section, a soggy spot, or a low-lying area in your own yard? Turn a drainage problem into an opportunity to build a beautiful rain garden and restore a bit of natural function to the land. Wherever there is a low-lying area in your yard or a downspout that needs to be directed away from the house, excavate a sloping spillway, dig a depression (be sure to call before you dig — you do not want to hit a utility line of any kind), build a berm, plant native plants that are adapted to your region and to slightly wet conditions (think creek sides, not wetland), and you’ll be creating a wildlife habitat at the same time. Two gardens for the price of one!

The anatomy of a rain garden includes a spillway, a basin, and a berm. Keep in mind that the excavated soil makes up the berm so that no soil is wasted.

Plants that are native to your region and that live along creek beds and rivers are amazing filters. They serve a function of holding the soil in place, and they serve a greater purpose of being the foundation of the food chain for wildlife. By planting the plants that are specific to your region, you’ll be guaranteed growing success, and you’ll add dimension to the gardening experience by inviting the insects, butterflies, and birds that are naturally attracted to the plants for their food source.

Look and ask around to find out what might work in your yard. Let botanical gardens, county extensions, nature preserves, and sustainable private and public gardens be your guide. Here in the Southeast, and perfect for rain gardens, are buttonbush, wax myrtles, elderberry, Virginia sweetspire, inkberry, swamp dogwood, juncus grass, sedges and rushes, cinnamon fern, Joe Pye weed, ironweed, swamp sunflower, swamp milkweed, golden Alexander, cardinal flower, and rose mallow. In the Northeast, these plants will work as well, but in the Northwest and in the Southwest, each of these zones will be a little different. Check with local resources for the appropriate plant lists.

This rain garden is integrated into the Samuelson EcoScape in East Birmingham. I often learn my best gardening tricks from the Birmingham-Southern College EcoScape program and Stoneshovel. Chances are there are gardens and resources in your area to help guide you.

How to install a rain garden:

To walk you through the anatomy of a rain garden, I am using the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve’s spillway and small rain garden as an example. This feature is part of a larger rain garden on the campus of the preserve. Follow these examples to build your own rain garden on a smaller scale.


Step 1

 Open Gallery

Think of what a natural watershed looks like, and try to mimic the same concepts in your yard. Here, think of the cliff as your house, the creek bed as the drainage from the downspout or driveway, the rocks as what slows the water, the plants as what holds the soil in place, and the leaves to help to nourish the whole system. Creating this type of natural function in your yard will help mitigate drainage problems and will help you better connect to nature.

Step 2

 Open GalleryFrom the downspout or runoff point from hard surfaces, dig a sloping trench and arrange rocks or logs (or a combination of both) to act as directional bars and to impede the water flow into the rain garden.

Step 3

 Open Gallery

Dig a basin for water to flow into. As you dig, berm up the sides. Water will flow into the basin and soak into the ground slowly. Use sand and gravel to improve drainage, and top off the whole area with composted leaves.

Step 4

 Open Gallery

Find a reliable resource for native plants of your region and add plants each season to fill in the rain garden. Plant native plants along both the spillway, the basin and the berm. Plant the spillway with deep-rooted plants that will help hold the soil in place. Plant in the crevices of the rocks and logs. In the basin will be the plants that require wet growing conditions. Choose plants that like drier conditions on top of the berm. Once the rain garden is established, it will add beauty to your yard and will act as a habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.


  • rocks
  • logs
  • plant
  • composted leaves


  • shovel
  • pick ax
  • wheelbarrow
  • hand trowel
  • garden gloves
About Michelle Reynolds 


I’m a slipcover maker who refuses to fill the trash with the cutaway bits of designer fabrics, so I strive to make use of every scrap. I live with my ...

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3 Responses

  1. Ponding in NJ says:

    I thought for sure this was a "before" picture! Rain gardens can be beautiful, but if this were the only one I had ever seen, I would never consider installing one. What happened here?

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