Rain Garden: Just Say “No” to Watering

I like to conserve resources, like… effort.  Take the rain garden I recently finished building.  Sure, I shoveled and wheelbarrowed a dump truck’s worth of soil, and hand-built a thirty foot long retaining wall.  But, once I get the flowers planted in the springtime, I will never, ever have to drag our heavy hose around to water them.

A rain garden, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a garden intentionally designed so that rainwater collects and pools within its boundaries.  The water then slowly infiltrates the ground, feeding plants and trees nearby.  The plants in the rain garden are chosen from species that naturally occur in such areas, so not only can they withstand periodic flooding, but their deep roots allow them to survive in dry times just as well.  You get a beautiful flower garden without the bother of watering; it’s the ultimate in lazy gardening.

The frugal gardener reusing found materials

The frugal gardener reusing found materials

Truth be told, I didn’t put all that work into a rain garden just because I’m lazy.  You know the expression, “when life hands you a lemon….”?  When my wife and I bought our first home recently, it had serious grading issues.  That was how the rain garden started.

First, there was the driveway.  Whatever contractor thought a vehicle could climb such a ridiculous grade in icy weather ought to have to park on one all winter—or perhaps for all eternity (insert evil cackle here).

Then, there was the rainwater draining toward the foundation of the house–on three sides.  We noticed it one night when outside it was raining, but inside we had puddles.

We hired contractors to dig into the sloping front yard and put in a new, flat driveway (of rainwater-permeable crushed stone).  Remember the lemon?  Here’s the lemonade: we had them leave most of the soil behind.

I used a lot of it to build up around our foundation.  This, and a shallow swale I dug into our back lawn, solved the indoor puddle problem.  But the majority of the soil went to the lowest side of our back yard, in the form of a long berm designed to hold and pool the yard’s rainwater.  It became one side of our eventual rain garden.

Beginnings of the rain garden

The digging begins. The berm (at right) retains water from the swale (bottom left).

A lot of stones, old bricks and pavers were dug up, sorted and stacked to one side during all this work.  This autumn, my wife and I were finally able to dig the rain garden to its proper depth.  I dry-laid the bricks, pavers and stones to build a retaining wall on its upslope side.  The soil from digging went on the high side of the wall, and helped to level our yard.

Test run

With the stone wall halfway complete, a storm obliged us with a test run.

My next door neighbor’s bags of raked leaves volunteered their way all over the completed rain garden’s floor.  (The neighbors were mystified when the empty bags reappeared on their doorstep.)  Over the winter, the leaves will break down as nature’s compost.  In the spring, we will plant flowers.

The completed rain garden

The completed rain garden

The flowers going into our rain garden will be native to our area.  I believe strongly in gardening with natives.  After all, my wife and I really like seeing birds, butterflies and other living things in our yard, and native plants best support the whole web of indigenous and interdependent life forms that comprise our ecosystem.

Bumble bee on a Sunchoke flower

A bumble bee enjoying our Sunchoke flowers (Helianthus tuberosus)

Incidentally, all the rainwater from our yard is now being put to use.  In the back yard, it all goes into the rain garden.  In the front yard, downspout tubes divert it onto our sloped front lawn, which of course we will never have to water.

Water goes in here...and out here.

Water from the downspout enters a buried PVC pipe, and exits under a stone in the rain garden.

Among all the small creatures living in our yard these days, we spotted our first Monarch butterfly caterpillar this summer.  It promptly ate most of the leaves off two of our milkweed plants.  We take this as proof that our native plant garden is doing what we want, and helping to conserve our local ecology.  That’s the kind of conservation my wife and I believe in most of all.

Monarch caterpillar

Our hungry visitor (Danaus plexippus) eats milkweed, only milkweed, and the more the better.

Roland works in Rockville MOMs.

About Roland

Roland works at the MOM's Organic Market central office. He gardens organically with native plants (when he's not busy with house renovations). He also dabbles in animation, woodworking and other arts.
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3 Responses to Rain Garden: Just Say “No” to Watering

  1. Pingback: How to Get a Wheelbarrow Out of Your Living Room | MOM's Organic Market

  2. Jane Stewart says:

    I thank you for the thorough explanation, with pictures. Have you planted this spring? I’d love to see an update.

  3. Pingback: An Eco-Friendly Yard & Garden (Part Two)

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