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.
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!
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.
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.