Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away: How to Build a Rain Garden

Springtime brings rays of sunshine and freshly blossomed flowers. But it also brings rain. A. Lot. Of. Rain. Tackle those yard drainage issues once and for all with an eye-catching rainwater garden — one of the best, low-maintenance investments you can make for your home.

Garden in yard via David Hymel, Rain Dog Designs
David Hymel, Rain Dog Designs

Benefits of a Rain Garden

Seeing water in your basement? Puddles the size of small pools in your yard? A rain garden may be the drainage solution you need. It’s built specifically to divert the rainwater away from your house and to soak it up in about a day. The best part? Aside from the fact that it’s disguised as a gorgeous flower bed, it helps the environment, as well. In fact, a rain garden helps to reduce the amount of lawn chemicals and pet waste that run into the sewers, local lakes and rivers. In some communities, homeowners with rain gardens are so appreciated that they actually qualify for tax breaks.

Designing a Rain Garden

So now you’re on board and wondering how to build a rain garden, right? Follow these steps:

  1. Decide where your garden needs to be. The point of a rainwater garden is to divert the rain away from your home, so it needs to be at least 10 feet from your house and in a low spot, where water will easily collect. You’ll need a minimum slope of one inch in a 4.5-foot area. When you get an idea of where it needs to be located, dial 811 to ensure there aren’t any underground utility lines there, so you can safely dig.
  2. Develop your rain garden design. Decide if you want to create a “river bed” from the gutters to the garden with decorative rocks or if you prefer to channel the water from a downspout through a PVC pipe underground. Although laying the pipe is much more labor-intensive (you may have to run it under a walkway, for example), it may be your best option if the water is pooling close to your house. When that decision is made, it’s time to decide on the shape, size and plants that you’d like to include. No matter how large or small, the garden is sure to make an impact.
  3. Dig, dig, dig. Whether you do it yourself or you hire someone to do it with an excavator, there will be a lot of digging involved. To determine the appropriate depth of your rain garden, calculate how quickly water drains in your yard. Once it’s dug, fill in all but the top 6 to 12 inches of your garden with rain garden soil. Slope the sides of the garden, so it’s deeper in the middle, and create berms — or slight ridges — along the way, to catch and retain water easily. Your area’s local extension program or nursery experts will be able to tell you how much compost, native soil, etc., should make up your garden soil.
  4. Provide the proper care for your plants. When everything is covered in mulch and all said and done, you don’t want to ignore the garden. The first year may require a little more TLC, since the plants are new, but after that, rest assured that your rain garden should thrive with little upkeep.

Best Plants for Rain Gardens

The best rain garden plants are those that have average-to-moist water requirements and have especially deep root systems. Many native plants to your specific area work well, including deep-rooted grasses, sedges and rushes. Put the plants that require the least amount of water along the edges. For the deepest section of your garden, though, it’s smart to consider planting marginal plants — plants that grow along the edges of ponds. A few of our favorites include the Lady fern, yellow flag iris and the cardinal flower.

Happy draining!


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