Skip to main content

Consider these 5 things before you build a rain garden

Rain gardens are an excellent way to take advantage of the weather to grow a beautiful and efficient garden system. Rain gardens also help reduce the amount of contaminated water that runs off homes, driveways, and sidewalks and into natural water areas. These areas, such as creeks, lakes, and ponds, can be polluted by the chemicals that wash off our roofs and paved roads. This can harm plant life and animal life in and around these water areas. With a rain garden, you can reduce that risk and invite beneficial insects and birds to your garden. So how do we build a practical rain garden? 

backyard rain garden
Photo by Anders Kristensen from Pexels

Where to put a rain garden

The most important part is location, location, location. Before you start to dig, study your property and learn how the water and sun naturally flow through and move across the land. The best way to help nature is to understand what it’s already doing:

  • If you try to build a rain garden where the water flows away, you’re likely to have an unsuccessful garden.
  • If you have an area on your property that stays wet longer after it rains, this might be a good place for the rain garden.
  • Just be sure the water table in that location is lower than two feet. If you hit water while digging, it might be best to find a new place or turn it into a wetland garden. 

The point of a rain garden is to bring in all the water in the surrounding area. This means there are a few things to keep away from a rain garden: 

  • Rain gardens should be at least 10 feet away from the home’s foundation, 25 feet from a wellhead, and 25 feet from a septic system.
  • You’ll also want to avoid utility lines and be sure that the area gets full to partial sun.

With all of these rules in mind, go ahead and find the perfect location for a rain garden and get to work.

What shape should a rain garden be?

The shape of a rain garden is similar to a funnel. It should be level with the land around it and then slowly dip down to its lowest point. Most rain gardens are designed with three zones. First, a section for plants that prefer drier conditions. The second zone is for plants that tolerate or like occasional standing water. The third zone is for plants that will survive or thrive in almost constant wet conditions. 

The size and shape of the rain garden will be determined by how much space is available and how large a rain garden you want. An organic shape that moves and flows with the land looks nice, plus allows the rain garden to do its job better. Try for curved lines rather than straight lines. 

How to build a rain garden

Next, it’s time to start digging. Depending on the size of the rain garden, you might be able to do this by hand. However, it might be easier to hire out or rent an excavator with more expansive rain gardens. Besides digging the garden itself, you’ll also need to dig a route for the pipes that bring the water in from other places. These could be pipes that run from the gutters, the sides of the driveway, or from a sump pump in the basement. 

Once the shape and depth of the garden have been determined, it’s time to carefully construct the base to avoid erosion. Since water will be flowing in and out of the rain garden often, it’s likely no product will reduce erosion completely. However, packing in stones around entry areas where pipes are bringing the water will reduce the amount of soil washed away. 

The base has been dug and prepared, and now it’s time for planting. The easiest way to decide where to place your plants is to keep them in their nursery pots and move them around. On paper, things might look good one way, but once you see the plants in person, they might not look quite right. Once you’re happy with the way things look, it’s time to heavily mulch. Mulch not only protects the plants as they find their rooting after transplanting, but it also prevents weeds from sprouting up. 

daylilies for rain garden
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What flowers grow well in a rain garden?

The best way to ensure a plant will thrive in a rain garden is to check its tag. Look for plants with “average to moist” water requirements. The best plants will also depend on your plant hardiness zone; however, a few plants are prevalent in rain gardens all over the U.S. Those are aster, daylily, iris, sedum, coneflower, artemisia, and sedge. 

What happens when you build a rain garden?

There are several benefits of building a rain garden that will help your home, yard, and the environment. Often, homeowners don’t consider how their gardening or landscaping efforts are affecting the ecosystem around them. While we might live in subdivisions or apartment buildings, our actions are still impacting nature whether we notice it or not. 

Rain gardens take some of the negative aspects of highly populated areas and reduce them. Keeping water soaking into the ground instead of flooding smaller waterways keeps contaminants in the soil where they can be filtered out. We also encourage insects and birds to make homes in a space they once found unusable. 

Editors' Recommendations

Rebecca Wolken
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rebecca's has written for Bob Villa and a Cincinnati based remodeling company. When she's not writing about home remodeling…
Is it illegal to collect rainwater? What you should know before setting up your rain barrels
Facts to learn about the legality of collecting rainwater
A raindrop splashing down into a barrel of water

As more gardeners look for easy ways to help the environment, collecting rain water has become more popular. While anyone can compost to reduce food waste or plant trees to absorb carbon, setting up a rain barrel has added benefits for gardeners. This is especially true in states with a higher risk of drought, as rain barrels can allow their gardens to flourish even amid water shortages. However, some people have been wondering: Is it illegal to collect rainwater? We’ve got everything you need to know to feel confident setting up your rain barrels.

Is it illegal to collect rainwater?
In most cases, no, it is not illegal to collect rainwater. However, there are some places with regulations or limitations. There are no federal laws about collecting rainwater, which means it's left to each state. Additionally, there may be restrictions at the county or city level, or even from your Homeowner’s Association.

Read more
No more crouching down: How to build a raised garden bed with legs for easy gardening
Building a raised garden bed is easier than you might think
Several raised garden beds with legs, full of soil and small plants

Raised garden beds offer a wide range of benefits to you and your plants, including protection from some pests, easier access, and space conservation. Gardening kits and pre-made beds can be a big help in getting your raised garden bed set up, but if you want a unique shape or size, or just prefer a more hands-on approach to gardening, then you might be interested in learning how to build your own. Here is everything you need to know about how to build a raised garden bed with legs.

What to consider before you begin
Before you begin building your raised garden bed with legs, there are a few things to consider. Weigh the pros and cons of raised garden beds to determine if this is the right gardening style for you. Raised garden beds are easier to access without kneeling and crouching, but they also dry out faster, meaning they require more frequent watering. Additionally, although building your own raised garden bed with legs is not difficult, it does still require an investment of time, energy, and resources.

Read more
How will the summer solstice affect your garden? What you need to know
Everything to know about gardening around the summer solstice
Parent and child having fun by garden

While you may be diving into the ocean during summer vacation season, your flowers will be focusing on something different: how long the daylight lasts. Summer solstice gardening is an important concept when it comes to making sure your plants are growing and blooming on schedule. This is the longest day of the year, the time when your garden will be receiving the most light. Unsure about how this will impact your garden? This simple guide will explain everything!

What is the summer solstice?
The summer solstice, also known as midsummer, is the halfway point of the summer. The solstices, especially summertime, is important for gardeners because of the effect on how their plants flower in their garden. The summer solstice, specifically, is the summer day that has the longest sunlight and shortest night, and plants use the length of the nights to cue the release of hormones for flowering and fruiting.

Read more