Planning Your Garden: Why You Should Cultivate a Rain Garden This Year

We're supposed to be in the thick of winter here on the East Coast, granted with temperatures in the 60's this week, it feels more like we're heading into spring. My garden seems to think so as well — I have daffodils and tulips peeking their heads out and one of my lilies looks like it just might bloom! The warm weather had me outside thinking about my garden, pondering my plans for this coming year, and a rain garden is definitely in order.

This will be my fourth year in my garden, both my front and back yard were a blank slate with not even one single plant established. It was a daunting task, but as an avid gardener, it was a mission I was ready to take on. It all has to start somewhere, so every year I set goals of what I want to undertake that particular season. In the beginning, it started as simply picking up hundreds of cigarette butts and tilling the deeply hardened soil followed by laying a stone patio and determining my beds. The next year I established a handful of hardy annuals and built a raised bed for my vegetable garden. Year three finally allowed me a bit of fine tuning. I planted a couple blueberry bushes and splurged on some enormous pots, big enough to contain a few rare trees that I purchased. This year, I have my sites set on incorporating a rain garden as well as installing a rain barrel.

So why should a rain garden be part of your landscaping plans you may ask?

Everyone from home gardeners to water authorities are looking for ways to deal with excess runoff. How can you absorb the rain where it falls, as naturally as possible (in lieu of treatment plants and underground systems that neutralize runoff)? It's as simple as implementing a rain garden or, if you're venturesome, a green roof. A rain garden is a simple and effective way to catch rain runoff. As the water is absorbed into the mix of sand, compost and topsoil, it's purified and recharged back into the groundwater.

Tips If You're Considering Establishing a Rain Garden:

1. Choose an Appropriate Location - A rain garden requires careful site planning. You don't want to plant it too close to your home, this has the potential to exacerbate rather than alleviate basement flooding. Once you've selected a site for your rain garden, it's always beneficial to conduct a test to see how permeable the soil is and whether or not needs to be amended. You should also asses the soil's pH level.

2. Select the Proper Plants - It's very important to pick plants that are native species. While rain gardens can have many varieties of plants, they can also have bold impact with just three or four plant species. If you choose the correct plants, it will enable them to establish, limit the need for chemical fertilizers and even reduce the amount of weeding necessary as well as save you on watering. For instance, wetland plants usually don't need to be watered once they take root and tend to crowd out most weeds. As an added bonus, they will provide food, shelter, and nesting areas for wildlife.

3. Create Your Design - When designing your rain garden, place trees first, shrubs second, followed by perennials. Take careful consideration on your tree and shrub placement. Placing them in appropriate growing conditions allows enough room for them to grow, eliminating the need to replant them because they are overcrowding other plants.

4. Variations in Soil Depth - Excess soil, or lack thereof, can be used to your advantage! Mounds tend to be drier by design while swales (low lying areas), tend to be more moist. Think of these variations as the yin and yang of gardening and incorporate both when creating your landscape.

5. Maintenance - When it comes to maintenance, consideration should be given to using herbaceous perennials versus your trees and shrubs (woodies). Rain gardens that consist mostly of woodies are usually easier to maintain as they consume and filter a lot more water.

In short, a simple rain garden is not difficult to install, it just takes a bit of proper planning. It most likely will need to tweaked after the initial installation is completed, but once established correctly, a rain garden will not only help the environment but they can also be low-maintenance and beautiful.

(Image: Flickr member Field Outdoor Spaces, licensed for use under Creative Commons)