The Beauty of Rain Gardens

“And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, hard rain, it’s hard rain a gonna fall…”

Dylan probably wasn’t even aware of global warming, much less that it would entail huge, powerful storms. But I can’t have been the only one who found myself singing the iconic words in last spring’s deluge.

Be that as it may, huge, powerful storms are what meteorologists predict for our increasingly warm future. In areas where storm water systems were barely capable of their load years ago and certainly aren’t capable of today’s paved surface/huge storm conditions, rain gardens are simply the way to go. Not familiar with a rain garden? Here’s a primer…

Rain gardens live up to their name. They really are gardens designed to catch rain. If you’ve spent your whole life dreaming of the perfect drainage that will force all water to rush heedless into the nearest storm drain this may seem puzzling, but it’s pretty simple.

Did you ever notice sticks, trash, even logs, floating down a stream, particularly after a hard rain? Flowing water moves things with it. Sticks are obvious, but chemicals move right along with that water, too. Oil and gasoline from roads, fertilizer and pesticides from yards, even pet waste gets washed into storm drains, streams, rivers, and, of course, the Bay.

Water runoff is causing problems for our favorite place to boat, fish, crab and sail. Enormous amounts of rain are bad especially when you factor in the junk. Rain gardens to the rescue! Rain gardens slow down water’s rush to go someplace else. The water is trapped there, where it filters slowly down through the soil or is up taken by thirsty plants. Over time, the water is purified.

The city of Cambridge has many rain gardens on display. Take a walk down Maryland Avenue. There, witness rain gardens nestled up against the roadway. How clever. These gardens are doing a wonderful job keeping the city – and its water – clean.

Rain gardens can be almost any size and shape (but work best when there are no sharp corners). Circles, ovals, kidney bean, hourglass…so many options. They can be a stand-alone feature of a yard, or they can simply be part of a garden space. Surround the garden with lawn or trees. It can line a driveway or patio. Have fun; be creative.

Rain gardens can be quite elaborate, but all that is really necessary is to create or utilize a depression in the ground where rain water can collect, install appropriate plants, and mulch heavily. Mulch is critical; it too absorbs water as well as keeping the soil moist for those moisture-loving plants. It’s worth doing your homework, reading many articles online, or talking with knowledgeable people here; the soil where the rain garden will be located is, ultimately, indispensable to the success of the project. You’re making a garden, not a pond.

Remember to create a path for water to escape, too. We want to trap the water, but sooner or later there will be flooding rains that can overwhelm the garden’s capacity. Carve out a small stream path leading away from the higher level to guide overflow to an area that can accept water. Some energetic people direct excess water to a drywell. You can, of course, direct excess back to that storm drain we are protecting. That seems unfortunate, but it’s better than getting unwanted water in your basement. We want to prevent water from terrorizing sewers, but we don’t want it terrorizing us, either. There simply are limits to any system, and repeated hard rains are likely to be exactly when you learn the limits of your garden.

Installing a rain garden can be a fairly simple procedure, but it does take some activity. In other words, like all garden projects, it will help you with your fitness goals. Most rain gardens can be created in a day or two, depending on how elaborate the plan is, so don’t give up your gym membership unless you’re suddenly bitten by the gardening bug. If you are, keep in mind many gardeners call their yard “the gym” – but unlike a gym, you can help the planet while helping yourself.

Plants work hard here, too. In fact, they’re almost as key to success as proper soil preparation. Plants uptake lots of water, and, if the rain garden is planted well, produces a bounty of lovely flowers for us and the butterflies to enjoy. Between the soil and the plants, the water is slowly purified. Some evaporates, some perks through the soil, some is up taken by happy plants. It’s a small miracle. Better than that, it’s good looking.

Native species are the greatest, no matter where you plant them. They’re used to the Eastern Shore’s climate and have evolved to thrive in all sorts of conditions – but this does not mean that any one plant can grow anywhere. It does mean that whatever the conditions of your rain garden, there is a wide array of plants that will be happy there.

 

Since a depression has higher sides surrounding it, you will need plants that love “wet feet” (roots that are consistently wet to moist) for the lowest area and others that don’t particularly mind a good bath but really are happier a little drier, for the higher surrounding areas. In a dry spell you may actually have to water the rain garden, as the bottom may still be moist, but the sides dry much more quickly, and the plants thereon might get thirsty. As with any garden, water thoroughly. A lot of water once a week makes for happier plants than a sip every day. Water can pile up in the rain garden when you water the higher seated plants – that’s fine. Remember, some plants really love wet feet.

Rain gardens can be in sunny or shady spots. Look around the area where the garden will be, taking note of the light conditions. Sun all the live long day? Full sun. Sun in the morning, not the afternoon? Part shade. Sun in the afternoon, not the morning? Part sun. Deep, dark shade morning to night? Shade. Here, native species plants shine; they have evolved in all of these conditions, so there is a broad range of choices for any spot.

Rain gardens can accommodate a tree, too, and shrubs, grasses, and flowers. As many as you can fit, considering their mature size. Have fun. It’s a garden, it’s your creation and, wonder of wonders, it’s good for the environment. When there’s bloom you’re likely to spot happy butterflies enjoying it.

Sunny areas almost beg for lots of blooming plants to attract bees, butterflies, and birds (who like to eat the seeds). Bloom from early spring to late fall is a great thing for any garden. Bees “wake up” hungry in spring, they look for flowers to visit right away. Similarly, in the fall, they’re looking for food to stockpile for winter. A rain garden can be a marvelous place for people and pollinators, as well as the Bay.

Shady areas are just as good at filtering water as sunny ones but call for slightly different plants. Don’t worry, many will bloom quite nicely for you. Many ferns will do well (and they won’t in the sun), even some spectacular grasses. Frogs, toads and turtles will be thrilled and eat boatloads of bugs.

Got a spot for a rain garden and want to get started right away? Call your Extension Agent.

Talbot County • 410-822-1244

Dorchester County • 410-228-8800

Kent County • 410-778-1661

Queen Anne’s County • 410-758-0166

Caroline County • 410-479-4030

Remember – a hard rain’s gonna fall.

Maureen Rice is a Master Gardener in Talbot County. A lifelong naturalist, Ms. Rice enjoys writing and research when she’s not playing in the dirt.

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