A rain garden is a purpose-built collection of native plants. Located in areas prone to standing water or stormwater runoff, they make beautiful natural additions to any property. Their true value, however, lies in their ability to drain and filter rainwater.
Best of all, rain gardens are simple to make. With a bit of planning, building a rain garden is a fun and memorable family event.
Here’s how to create a rain garden with the family.
Why a Rain Garden?
Rain gardens are full of value. They add considerable curb appeal, and they create valuable habitats for native animals and insects. Their true worth, though, lies below the surface.
Through extensive root networks and filtering substrates, rain gardens capture harmful runoff. This prevents toxins, debris, and excess nutrients from entering the waterways. Rain gardens are so effective at removing toxins from runoff that they can filter up to 90% of chemicals from the water.
These same factors provide excellent drainage and erosion control. You can solve yard erosion and flooded yard depressions with a beautiful, natural option.
Perhaps most importantly, rain gardens are excellent teaching tools. They showcase the effects of ongoing environmental damage, and how to correct that damage.
Involving your kids in constructing a rain garden teaches them about stormwater. Having such knowledge at a young age helps instill the value of water quality and conservation.
If you’re ready to start, continue reading for a simple yet effective rain garden guide.
The Steps Involved
Creating a rain garden involves four essential steps:
- Preparation and planning
- Purchasing plants
- Digging the garden
- Long-term maintenance
Shovels, rakes, levels, and staking material are all the tools you’ll need. All other materials are easy to find and fun to explore with the family!
Plus, the extra hands make digging a breeze.
Prepare and Plan
To begin a rain garden, you must plan ahead. Fortunately, the planning stage is simple and easy for most kids to understand. Emphasize educational lessons within the real-life application of the garden. For instance, you can use math to understand the size of the garden.
Garden journals are great options to keep the kids involved in the planning process. Journals are excellent tools for kids, from analytical record-keeping to creative records of their garden thoughts.
To get started, figure out where your garden should go, and what size it will be.
Garden Size and Location
Placing a rain garden depends on where the water comes from. If most runoff is from the downspout, then the rain garden should be within 30 feet of the outflow.
Likewise, if runoff from the street flows down your yard, then a rain garden will disrupt the continued damage. Just keep it at least 10 feet from the house to avoid flooding the foundation.
Garden size is dependent on property size. Residential rain gardens typically range from 100 to 300 square feet. Larger properties support bigger rain gardens. Smaller properties build smaller rain gardens.
Kids make great measuring experts in this step. Have them use a tape measure and stakes to measure the rain garden’s dimensions. If they’re old enough, encourage them to find area and volume, as well.
Since a rain garden’s main job is drainage, understanding the soil is of utmost importance. Different soil materials provide different drainage rates.
Sandy soils drain the fastest, and clay soils are the slowest. However, all soil types support rain gardens. Adding materials like compost or sand improves absorbency. Placing mulch and topsoil during planting protects the plants and the garden itself.
Ask your children to help you figure out your soil types. To start:
- Have them dig up a bit of soil.
- Add some water to the soil, and instruct them to roll it into a ball.
- Observe the results!
Sandy soils stay crumbly, like sand. Clay soils remain thick and sticky. Loamy soil, which is a mixture of clay and sand, behaves like standard dirt. The kids will have a blast getting their hands dirty, no matter the soil type.
Determine Your Plants
Once the garden’s size and location are set, it’s time for the plants. The best plants to use are those native to your area and hardiness zone. Native plants provide several benefits over others, including:
- Adapting to the local conditions and climate.
- Having natural defenses against local pests.
- Easily thriving in natural conditions.
- Providing natural shelter and habitats for local fauna.
Native plants come in endless varieties, styles, and uses. From trees to grass, the lists are endless. However, choosing plants often comes down to two specific categories: survivability and root types.
Planting for the Conditions
Rain gardens are micro-ecosystems with their own natural conditions. Depending on the frequency of rain and runoff, these conditions range from perpetually waterlogged to often dry. As such, planting for the conditions is a smart decision.
Wetland plants like buttonbush thrive in wet soil conditions. Likewise, switchgrass is both drought-resistant and a fan of moist soils.
Planting Based on Roots
Another method of choosing plants is by their roots and absorption rates. Trees and bushes tend to have deep and extensive root systems. These are crucial tools against soil erosion. Also, more roots mean better water filtration.
Other plants, like sedges, have excellent moisture-absorbing properties. This helps speed up the filtration process, thus allowing the garden to handle more runoff. For this reason, higher-absorbance plants go in the center, and lower-absorbance plants line the edges.
Dig and Plant
Once you’ve gathered your tools, plants, and materials, it’s go time.
The night before digging, soak the area with water to make the process easier. When it’s time to break ground, involve the entire family and create some lasting memories!
Building the Berm
Start at the center and excavate the garden to the desired depth. In most situations, this is 4 to 8 inches at the center. The steeper the slope, the deeper the garden.
Pack the excavated dirt into a berm around the outside of the garden. Ideal berms are 8 inches above ground level. With steeper slopes, make the downhill side of the ridge higher to ensure it captures all of the water.
Ask your kids to be the berm packers for this step. Stepping on the dirt compacts it into the perfect shape. Once finished, have them sprinkle mulch or grass seeds over the berm. Both improve erosion control and give the garden an excellent natural look.
Once you’re looking at a big excavated hole, lay down some gravel or crushed stone as a filtration base. Next, backfill it with an ideal ratio of compost, sand, and topsoil based on your soil conditions.
Planting the Garden
With the garden backfilled, it’s time to plant. Trees and bushes go on the outside. Perennials and grasses will make up the majority of the garden. Plant them based on the information on their tags.
Give your kids their own flora, and let them plant. It’s a great way to teach basic gardening skills. As well, they’ll see “their” plant every time they visit the garden.
After planting, finalize the garden with mulch, decorative stones, or other personal additions. These provide added protection, but they also make the garden a true family project.
After an initial period, rain gardens become largely self-sustaining. In time, insects and animals will claim the garden as their own, solidifying your rain garden as an essential part of the environment.
Before that, however, it will need some maintenance.
Watering and Weeding
For the first two years, rain gardens need consistent water. They should receive an inch a week. So, bring out the hose during dry periods.
Regular weeding is a necessity until the native plants outgrow the weeds. With vigilant weeding, though, this won’t take long. In the spring, prune and trim bushes and trees as needed. Remove dead leaves or flowers. In a short couple of years, the rain garden will thrive on its own.
Areas with cold winters benefit from rain gardens, as well. Those hardy, native plants you used will remain alive beneath the ground. Snowmelt and runoff from the roads continue to flow through rain gardens, thus providing nutrients and water.
As perennials die, trim them back and remove dead branches. For maximum protection, add extra compost or organic mulch each winter to keep moisture trapped in the soil.
Rain gardens provide several benefits.
- Building one is a great family activity that teaches kids the importance of protecting the environment.
- Rain gardens reduce the environmental harm caused by human pollution.
- Rain gardens add a beautiful, natural boon to your property.
- Rain gardens promote and educate on the importance of conservation and environmentalism.
Easy to construct and safe for all ages, rain gardens are ideal additions to any yard. Watch your children marvel at the yearly growth of beautiful flowers. See them smile at the arrival of birds, bees, and deer. Most importantly, know that they’ve learned many important lessons along the way.