Stewardship

How About a Rain Garden This Spring?

A rain garden can add beauty and impact the environment
Thanks to John Potter for his guest post this week!

You never know what the weather will bring in the Midwest. A week ago we had a freak snowstorm with 9 inches of snow, this week we were in the 60s. The frogs have been chirping for spring and some plants are started to poke up out of the ground. Sadly, I know that winter isn’t done with us yet!

Rain is a spring ritual for so many of us. Unfortunately, rain doesn’t always favor the entire country with her grace. In so many places, rain is becoming a scare resource and we all need to try to save on water in little ways. If we all save on water we can collectively make an impact on the water crises that faces our country.


I am blessed to live in Michigan where we are surrounded by 4 massive Great Lakes. We have 10% of the world’s fresh water in Lake Superior alone. To us, water sometimes appears to be a limitless resource. We are spoiled while gardeners in drought-stricken states must focus on how to utilize water sparingly. For too long we have long been content to take this resource for granted. This idea is slowly changing as water prices continue to rise. After all, gardeners must recognize that they’re not simply paying for water but the corresponding sewage rates for such water use as well - whether the water hits the drain or not.


So what can just one person do to save water?  What are some easy ways to save water? You can either choose plants that require less moisture to thrive, or you can build a garden that naturally captures and retains water. A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon to create what’s called a rain garden.  According to Ground Water Foundation “Compared to a conventional lawn, rain gardens allow for 30% more water to soak into the ground.” Why is this important? Because so much of urban space is asphalt, rainwater quickly washes away after a storm, causing both flooding and absorption of toxins that must be removed from that water in a treatment facility before it can be used again for drinking, washing, or watering plants. Rain-garden plants are chosen not just because they retain water, but because they often filter out toxins themselves.

Creating a rain garden requires tightly planting shrubs and perennials amidst a bed of rocks or mulch to trap rainwater runoff. As such, this type of garden should be positioned near a low spot or where a naturally slope exists. If your landscape doesn’t have either, it’s easy enough to create a 6-inch deep depression. A berm should be constructed on the lowest side of the depression to retain water. Be sure that you position your rain garden at least ten feet away from your home.

The plants you select should be able to survive periodic flooding. Be sure to plant in groupings as a hedge against dislocation. Surrounding these plants with grasses that prevent soil erosion is another way to fortify your rain garden. Planting within a soil mixture of mostly sand, with equal parts topsoil and compost works best.

Rain gardens aren’t areas for stagnant water to pool. In fact, the water retained by a rain garden after a rainfall generally drains within 48 hours. Rain gardens that fail to drain within this time risk damaging plant roots. Ensuring that your rain garden does not create a standing pool of water is as simple as conducting a soil test and checking to see just how easy it is for water to infiltrate the soil.

Finally, don’t neglect to use mulch to safeguard your rain garden during dry days (shredded hardwood bark is best). On a hot summer day, as much as 70% of water can evaporate from the soil. A protective layer of mulch prevents evaporation from occurring and helps hold moisture within the soil. Many types of mulch even add helpful nutrients to the soil because they decompose over time. I layer my gardens every spring with new mulch and over the years my soil has become softer and richer while it feeds my plants.

One of the best things about rain gardens is that landscapers are able to use indigenous plants to create them, and those plants are better suited to the local habitat and to the animals and insects within it - which means they are more likely to thrive and nurture the living things within your natural ecosphere. They are also less likely to need pampering or require pesticides or insecticides to keep them looking great.

I built a rain garden on the north side of our house several years ago. We had an issue with water pouring down one of the downspouts from our two story home. The water would literally flood the plants and wash away the mulch every time it rained hard. It became very annoying and caused me a lot of extra work. We placed a drainage tube under the soil attached to the gutter spout. The tube drops the water down a dry river bed lined with stones about 8 inches deep. There are flowing grasses that surround the rain garden. It’s a perfect and natural way to divert the rain from the house foundation and because this area of the yard is so sandy it provides some well needed moisture to the plant roots.

Rain gardens are really a win-win solution for everyone. Making one in your yard this gardening season isa great project for the West Michigan gardener this spring. If you are up to the challenge I would love to see your pictures!