In some homes, you know it’s spring when you hear the sump pump switch on and off for days at a time. Keeping water in the right place during rainy seasons or even extremely rainy days can be one of the biggest challenges for any homeowner. If you worry about a wet basement, muddy pools of water in your yard, or streams of thick water running from your pump into the street, you may want to consider the benefits of adding a rain garden to your landscape.
Rain gardens are an effective tool for improving drainage in your yard. Essentially, a rain garden is a garden bed space often inhabited by native or water-loving plants. To determine how a rain garden can fit into your landscape, examine your home from the street or at a distance. Identify areas where water cannot effectively penetrate the soil, such as rooftops, driveways, sidewalks—even some low-lying turf areas. Installing a rain garden will allow you to direct the water from these types of surfaces into the garden via downspouts, pipes, or swales. The plants in the garden, along with a few design techniques, help the water drain quickly into the soil, keeping it out of your home and from filling storm drains. A well-designed rain garden will drain within a few hours of the storm event, eliminating concerns about problems associated with standing water (hint: mosquitos).
The location of your rain garden is one of the most important elements to the design process. It can seem like a great idea to place your garden in an already low-lying area where water tends to collect for several days after a rain event, but you’ll most likely want to avoid that area due to the wrong soil type. These areas often have soil structures that are resistant to drainage—and proper drainage is the goal! You will need to locate an area with a slope from 1 inch (minimum) to 4-1/2 feet (maximum) to allow the water to flow into your garden. You can determine the slope of your yard by placing a long, straight board at the highest edge of the slope and allowing the other end to suspend over the lowest point of the slop. Measure the distance between the ground and the board. If you don’t have at least an inch of slope, be prepared to do some digging and additional landscaping to allow for the difference in ground level. Make sure that your garden can be placed at least 10 feet away from your home. Otherwise, water from the garden may find its way back to the foundation of your home.
Determining the right size and garden depth is of great importance. A rain garden which is too small may overflow and drain into unwanted areas or flood water-sensitive plants. A rain garden which is too big will not be able to provide adequate moisture for thirsty plants. Ideally, you’ll only want to capture as much water as will absorb in a few hours. Use the How-to Design Your Rain Garden worksheets [www.kidsgardening.org/Rain Garden] to help you define these necessary specifications. Keep in mind, that there are geographic locations where daily or weekly rain is a way of life—and often yards are smaller than what is necessary to accommodate a full-scale garden. It’s always okay to adjust the size of your rain garden—after all, your garden is meant to fit your landscape AND family needs. A small rain garden can still yield big benefits. Rain gardens that are 30 percent smaller than ideal still handle nearly 75 percent of the storm water from a house; just remember to allow for a way to channel extra water safely away from the homes in your neighborhood (including your own)!
There are several possible plant selections listed in the “How-to” worksheets. You may, however, find the best success with native plants. The term “native plants” refers specifically to those plants which are appropriate for your climate and geography because they originated in your location. These plants are most often perennial, hardy, and easy to care for due to their natural adaptations and evolution. Consult with your local growers, nurserymen, or county Extension agent to determine which optimal varieties. Take the time to nurture these plants in the first year—you may consider providing some extra PVC pipe to channel some of the water away from the rain garden until the roots of these new plants are well established. Allowing the plants some time to develop will protect your investment in the long term.
Using the Rain Garden as a Tool for Family Interaction
There are many ways to measure rainfall, but have you ever taken a walk in the rain to see “where rain goes”? Wandering through the yard or neighborhood together can be a great way to explore how water travels. Watch for the tiny rivers, examine the puddles, and listen for the sounds of water on the move. Ask your children about which direction the water is flowing, and see if they can identify if it is flowing along a steep or soft slope. Using words like steep, slope, hazy, and damp is a great way to introduce new vocabulary—and using them in the midst of an outdoor experience will increase the retention of the language. Use the book, The Listening Walk, to get your youngest children ready for listening to new sounds. The colorful sketches and easy text will help them to understand that some sounds are quiet and they might even need to whisper or stand very still to hear the special sounds of a rain storm.
Rain can also be an exciting medium for older children who enjoy art or creative projects. Using sidewalk chalk in the rain allows for a paint-like experience, where the colors blend together easily and can be spread with the fingertips. Artists will also enjoy drawing with washable markers on a piece of cardstock, then placing their work out in a light rain to let nature finish the piece. This is a great way to get an “Impressionist”-look to their illustration.
Rain gardens provide benefits to our environment and home landscapes; they can also serve as learning opportunities for families. By making a few landscaping improvements this spring you’ll worry less about those April showers pooling in the wrong places—and spend more time showing your kids the “right” way to jump in a puddle.