Friday, March 25, 2011

Rain Gardens and Wildflowers

During a rainy season, does part of your garden turn into an old-fashioned swimming hole?  Do you live on a street where you need a rowboat to get to your house after a heavy rainstorm?  Even if conditions are not quite this extreme at your home but you do have a wet basement or mud puddles in your lawn after prolonged rainfall, you might consider installing a rain garden in your landscape.

Last week Beckie and I attended a workshop on rain gardens sponsored by the Prairie Rivers Network, a not-for-profit organization concerned with conservation and protecting our rivers, and a state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation.  I've been wanting to learn more about rain gardens for some time and to see if one would be feasible in my own yard.  We live in a low-lying area where flooding is common in the spring time when the combination of melting snow and spring rains fill up creeks and drainage ditches to overflowing in a short time.  Flooded front yards in one section of town are a common sight, and residents of one subdivision have indeed had to resort to rowboats some years to reach their homes.

Local scene after heavy rains in June '08

Last fall a group of volunteers planted several rain gardens in the front yards of some residential areas in nearby Champaign-Urbana that experience frequent flooding problems.  It will be interesting to see what effects they might have during the next rainy season.

Basically, a rain garden is a shallow depression in the landscape that is specifically designed to capture rainwater and melted snow and filter it into the soil.  Downspouts can be diverted towards the rain garden, eliminating runoff onto sidewalks and driveways or seeping into basements. The garden absorbs more water than traditional lawns, which means flooding and water damage are reduced.  The plants also filter contaminants from the water, thereby reducing the number of pollutants deposited into ground water and overflowing storm drains.   Another extra benefit is that most of the plants recommended for these types of gardens are attractive to wildlife, including birds and beneficial insects.

Rain gardens are relatively easy to create, but several factors should be considered before deciding on a location, such as avoiding ultility lines or septic fields.  Do a little research before you dig in an unsuitable place or in soil that is not permeable enough.

One of the questions I had before the workshop was what happens to a rain garden during a drought?  Last June was very rainy, and my roadside garden turned into a bog garden for a week or more.  But from July through October it became more like a desert.  What plants can survive both conditions?  The answer is an obvious one--and one I should have known before the class---native plants.  Native plants, with their deep roots, are already adapted to local conditions and thus are the best choice for a rain garden.

Virginia bluebells Mertensia virginica,  Blue flag iris Iris virginica, and Cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis are just a few of the many native plant choices suitable for a rain garden.

Familiar natives like purple coneflowers and Joe Pye Weed are not only beautiful,
but also work well in a rain garden.

Native grasses and sedges also are good additions, like this Prairie dropseed grass
I admired last fall at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

A rain garden can be created at minimal cost, especially if you already have a self-seeder like the pretty Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, and can transplant some of the seedlings.

Or the hardy and prolific Obedient plant, Physotegia virginiana.

The workshop covered the basics of a rain garden and certainly piqued my interest.  A second workshop will be held here in April where participants will receive individual help in actually designing their own rain gardens, but I won't be able to attend that session.  My plate is pretty full already for this year, but I intend to consider creating a rain garden here sometime in the near future.  A rain garden is a great way to combine beauty with functionality and good environmental practices.

If you would like to know more about rain gardens, you can check out the Prairie Rivers Networks website or go to the Rain Garden Network for general information to get you started.

I'm a few days late, but I'm also linking this post to Wildflower Wednesday, a monthly posting hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone, since almost all the plants recommended for a rain garden are wildflowers or natives.  Check out other entries on wildflowers at Gail's for some excellent recommendations for your area.  Even if you have no need for a rain garden, native plants have so many other advantages, not the least of which is attracting all those helpful pollinators.

Mr. Bumble and his friends will thank you for planting more natives!


  1. I love the idea of a purpose made rain garden - immediately I'm thinking of a couple depressions in the grass that fill with water whenever it rains hard - that there are so many suitable natives, esp l. cardinalis makes it quite appealing!

  2. Hi Rose,

    So very interesting. As you rightly say much of it is obvious but how many times does it just not occur to us??

    I created a bog garden when I moved here. The area is puddled in winter, damp in autumn and spring and as dry as a bone in summer.
    All natives have survived but the tropicals I planted have passed to Gods garden in the sky......
    My bog garden contains marshmallow, native ferns, purple loosestrife, kilmarnock willow etc etc all are looking lovely.

    Nice to the dumbledore at the end of the post. May you see many during the nect few weeks and perhaps a butterfly or two.

  3. Rain garden has a much nicer ring to it than retention pond! Everywhere you go in Florida, anywhere there's a major drainage issue, a retention pond has to be built. They would look so much better adorned with some native plants. I love your idea and hope it works for you.

  4. I have a corner in the garden that does gather water. I have some natives in there but it is also very shaded. Quite the problem for me. I will have to look into some shade loving natives to plant there.

  5. I enjoyed your post. You could also link it to Jan at Thanks for Today's for her sustainability workshop, or something like that.

    I wish I would have looked into rain gardens more when I made the new planting area by the curb a couple years ago.

    We are about to lose the big maple tree in our front yard. I'll have to check to see if a rain garden can go in that close to the house. It probably won't work, though, because there is a bit of a slope yet on the other side of it.

    Whatever we do with the area, Larry and I are already going to have to compromise on somehow. He announced the other day that he wanted to just level out the area and plant grass. I wonder if he was testing me, because he knew I'd be going after more land to garden.

  6. Last year I attended a rain garden workshop at the Univ. of Connecticut and it was the first time I had heard of this way to manage run off. The wet spot in our neighborhood is right next to us and partly in our neighbor's lot. The house is for sale, and if we ever get new neighbors I'd like to try a joint project with them to make a rain garden right there in the depression between our lots. Great post... it reminded me of what can be done!

  7. You must get a lot of rain! We are in a semi-arrid desert and receive very little. But sometimes it just pours. I ended up putting in a pond for the water that pours off our house down the gutters. It works.
    Your flowers are so pretty!

  8. I bet that workshop was most fun and you learned a lot. Those rain gardens are fantastic ideas for controlling stormwater runoff.

  9. Hi Rose, I actually did research this at one time. I'd thought of installing a dry bed for the rain that runs wildly (as in river!) after an abundant rain! It never transpired, but it is one reason why I created a path through what is now the Woodland Walk. ;-)

    In helping some young friends garden, (in what is usually a wet spot in their yard) we did plant mostly native wildflowers and grasses that have deep roots.

    This was a great post, and actually may have changed my mind about one of the classes I want to attend at today's Horticulture Show. :-)

  10. I think you'd need a much bigger garden than mine to create a rain garden! Might get swallowed up!
    I think that lovely grass is Festuca Glauca. I have several in my little patch.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  11. YES! Rain gardens are relatively easy to create and can be extremely effective in all of the areas you mentioned! This simple type of "green infrastructure" is a fantastic alternative to modifying sewer and stormwater systems, which is incredibly expensive. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions. I love my rain garden and have been amazed at how effective it is at absorbing water and how low maintenance it is.

  12. Rose, I built a dry stream bed a few decades ago to catch the water running off the slope~It works! I now want to create another rain garden to catch the runoff from the downspouts~I think they will be a great addition to the garden. Excellent post and inspiring. gail PS I was so excited to see your link~this seemed a perfect WW story.

  13. Rain gardens are super and it is great that areas are having classes on how to build them. Neighborhood flooding is something that just makes my heart break. So sad.

  14. Rose girl this is always an excellent idea and i keep forgetting to make one by the down spout that I can't fit another rain barrel at .. I would love to use pea gravel and BES with the grasses I have .. I think it will be a wonderful little piece of "good" for the earth from my front yard : )
    Love seeing your pictures of Mr. Bumble : )

  15. Dear Rose,
    Wonderful post. thank you for all the information. I was considering a rain garden a few years ago when we had so much rain but since I live at the top of the hill it would not have been a good idea. Planting native is the best gardening practice for the bees and butterflies. This year I am expanding my Kitchen Garden. More herbs and vegetables for my table.
    So love seeing your bees...soon very soon the bees will be out to stay. One more snow storm to get through.
    Happy Spring,

  16. What an interesting post! I love the idea of a rain garden. It sounds so magical, as if a mermaid would be swimming through the plants, looking for a rock to sun herself on or she might be watching out for a teeny, tiny (snap)dragon to jump up and breathe fire in an attempt to dry up the garden. LOL!

    I have sandy soil, so need more of a dry, desert-like garden. I do like your advice on native plants. You really can't go wrong, can you? Nice that you and Beckie can get out to these workshops (and nice that you share them with us) Thank you.

  17. Cyndy, We have a few low spots that would be perfect for a rain garden, too. I'm going to consult with my husband about the best location.

    Cheryl, A rain garden is probably just a new term for a bog garden. But I like the idea of using runoff water in a more productive way. I'm hoping the bees and butterflies are some place warm right now, because it's cold again here!

    W2W, Every time a new subdivision goes up in our town, drainage is an issue. There are quite a few retention ponds. But I like the rain garden idea for individual yards.

    Lisa, We were given a long list of suitable plants to use, including quite a few shade-lovers. I'd be happy to email it to you if you'd like.

    Sue, I should have thought of Jan's project when I wrote this; I had planned another topic for that one. Your husband sounds like mine--you'd think they would be happy with less grass to mow:)

    Laurrie, Your situation sounds like the perfect place for a rain garden. I hope your neighbors see the benefits of this.

    Rosey, We often have a "monsoon" season in the spring. This year I'm hoping we don't have one around the time of my daughter's wedding.

    Tina, Since I joined the MG ranks, I've learned about so many great workshops and talks held in our community. This one was definitely worthwhile.

    Shady, Before this class, I had only a vague idea of what a rain garden was and where to place it. I learned so much that evening!

  18. Maggie, A rain garden doesn't have to be very big. But I'm sure it isn't practical or even necessary for everyone.

    Rose, I remember you writing about your rain garden before, but the workshop gave me a better idea about placement and how to create one. Thanks for the offer of advice--I may take you up on that!

    Gail, I would love to channel some of the runoff from our downspouts, too; sometimes it seems I have a river flowing from them. I had hoped to have some real wildflowers blooming for this WW, but maybe next month!

    Janet, Flooding is a concern here during heavy rains, so I'm happy that the rain garden concept is growing here.

    Joy, Sounds like you have the perfect place in mind. The photo of the bumble is from last year; it's still too cold for the bees yet, but soon they'll be here, I hope.

    Sherry, No, it doesn't sound like you need a rain garden. We have possible snow in the forecast for this weekend, too, but I'm hoping it won't amount to much. Hope the bees are some place safe and warm!

    Wendy, I love your image of a mermaid in the rain garden:) Maybe whenever I create one here, I can find a mermaid figure to add to it. So glad, too, that Beckie had time to go with me; it's always more fun to attend things like this with a friend.

  19. Great post Rose! Lots of depressions here that fill up with water after a heavy rain. It's true that the natives thrive in those sorts of situations. I've borrowed a lot of the natives that grow wild on the farm for the garden since they're so tough and well-adapted as well as beautiful.

  20. Perfect for your area, love them all, and have many in my own garden (except banned hardy and prolific Obedient plant, Physotegia virginiana, that was way too happy (although the pink better behaved than the white).

  21. I have an unofficial rain garden and two official rain barrels. It's a fun topic for sure. Another great resource of info, if people are interested, is .

  22. Yep I definitely have the perfect spot for one of these. Perfect timing on this post Rose, one area of my yard is a muddy mess right now. :)

  23. Very cool. I wrote an article on rain gardens once. I hope you'll find a place to do it in your backyard. Yea, for natives!~~Dee

  24. Good idea, Rose! My "tunnel of water overflowing from the neighbors' yards" rain garden is unofficial, too - it works to slow down the flow and keep moisture for the front trees, but it's much too shady for most natives. Malvaviscus does well, with fragrant mistflowers liking the edge. We only have drought and flood here so I'm glad we tried it.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  25. Our swale serves a similar purpose Rose - still working on planting it. The moist, shady spots are easy, the shady part that is wet for weeks on end, then dry most of the summer is the problem area. The swale's much deeper than most rain gardens, so a lot of the plants that will work in a rain garden don't work so well in the alternately wet/dry area - the largest part of it. I plan to keep working at it though,until it's fully planted.

  26. we are lucky enough to live on a big hill so the water just goes down. there are areas around here though where yards will occasionally look like ponds.
    those black eyed susans look especially happy!

  27. Right now as I type, I have a swamp in the backyard! By Summer, it will more then likely be as dry as a bone and hard as a rock in the same area. I never thought of natives as the way to go there but Duh, of course! I have a plan in my head for a rocky creek and even a foot bridge but that will cost money so for now, I will put on the rubber booties and try to ignore this area….


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