Discovering Rain Gardens

Heliopsis, monarda and mint

Guest post by Donna Donabella, of Gardens Eye View

Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.
~William Ashworth, Nor Any Drop to Drink, 1982

As I have learned over the years about climate change, going green and being environmental friendly it made sense to do some things differently 5 years ago when starting a new garden from a blank slate.

The house is your typical 2000 ft colonial in the NE United States. We average 120 inches of snow annually and we generally have lots of rain in the spring and fall and most summers. No water worries here except we tend to get too much water in the yard especially in spring.

The French Drain Rain Garden

We have a steep pitch in the landscape on one side of the house. I decided to have a mason friend build a long, winding wall that changed its height with the slope. The biggest challenge was how to deal with the 2 down spouts on both ends of the house gutters.

French drained wall garden

I had heard about French drains, but was not quite sure what they entailed. Basically you bury the down spouts and let the water from the gutters spread throughout the garden. Of course you have to be careful that you are not too close to the house or basement when doing this.

The wall garden gave me enough space to safely create French drains. For each French drain, the down spout is taken off and replaced with a perforated flexible extension. A 6 inch wide, 2 foot deep hole or trench is dug and filled some with gravel. The flexible extension is placed in the hole, and the entire thing is back-filled with the gravel to the top.

Make sure the extension is facing away from the house so the water disperses away from the foundation. The extension is then buried with dirt. Mine are just buried below the soil line and I know exactly where they are so I never dig them up. You may want to mark them just in case.

I finished off the wall garden by filling it with good soil and compost and proceeded to plant. Of course at this point I had not been introduced to native plants, invasives or had any concept what all the water running off the roof into the gutters and then into this garden would do to the garden….can you guess?

Yes it makes for a very moist garden, but never flooded or overly wet. But wet enough. So any plant that requires drier conditions needless to say did not make it. What I finally realized was that the native plants fared the best in this rain type of rain garden.

Mine is not totally native plants, but the majority of plants there are native. I made one big mistake and planted one tiny spearmint plant. It has taken over the area closest to one of the drains, but I have accepted it, and actually like it.

I tried planting other mints there, but kept them in containers. That doesn’t work either. They jump the pots and take root. Also planted with the mint is monarda, heliopsis, helianthus, yarrow, lupine, spiderwort, polemonium, hydrangea, columbine, hardy geranium and honeysuckle. Most of these are less invasive than some other natives that would take over this moist garden.

I definitely stayed away from Obedient plant and Joe Pye here, but should add some lobelia, native echinacea, phlox and liatris which love this moist environment. We have had such good luck with this type of rain garden that we also French drained the garden bed on the other side of the house.

Trench Rain Garden

We frequently have water sitting in large puddles in our yards because of the way the land is graded, and because we have very dense clay for soil. I continue to have whole areas in the back gardens on both sides of the yard flood out and I lose plants every year.

Trench Rain Garden

Last year I dabbled with regrading an area to drain into a ditch we dug. It seemed to work come spring, but it was not deep or wide enough to take all the water. And then on the other side of the yard, we had a similar problem.

So this year we dug 2 trench or ditch style rain gardens. Digging through clay, even wet clay, is hard. We look for how and where the water is draining and start at about 8 inches to a foot deep. Then as we dig the trench, we slope it back to about a foot and a half or more. It takes some trial and error, but I think we are off to a good start.

We are not lining ours with gravel or fabric at this point. We are waiting to see how the plants grow in to absorb the water. The plants that seem to be doing the best in these very wet to almost pond like areas are native iris, native juncus grasses and native hardy hibiscus.

I have not had any luck with any other plants (native and non-native) at this point although the Obedient plants on the sides are creeping into the one rain garden and certainly would take over after the iris are done blooming. I plan to experiment with other plants that love the boggy conditions. One word of warning.

If you have mosquitoes, you need to use mosquito dunks and replace them often because of the standing water. Also, once the water dries up and we hit a dry summer like this year, the plants have to be versatile enough to take the changing conditions. I think the plants I am using, once they are established, should fare well.

If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in the water.
~ Loren Eisley

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  1. says

    Awesome post! Have you tried dwarf horsetail? Depending on your region, it may be native (it’s native in the Southeast, anyhow) loves standing water, and isn’t quite as crazy thuggin’ as it’s big brother, (horsetail, scouring rush, whatever you want to call it.) It can take standing water or temporary dry conditions, and I’ve had a lot of luck with it in my pond area, which is why I suggest it.
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..Lush and Ragged

  2. says

    I’m wondering why you said you stayed away from Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) – granted, it is tall, but it would be perfect for your side gardens against the fence. It is a native plant and is a butterfly magnet. The other plants you might consider is swamp butterfly weed / milkweed – Asclepias incarnata they are another butterfly magnet, and milkweeds are the only host plant for monarch butterfy and caterpillar. I’ve also planted: Hibiscus moscheutos, rose mallow/swamp hibiscus. I am also near Philadelphia, PA.

    My yard slopes down 6-8 inches from three apartment parking lots that surround the back of my property, with clay soil beneath the top soil. So I had a 10 x 15′ patch that was often too wet to mow. Two years in a row a local public garden had a plant sale and included a “wet meadow mix” of plants for sale. now I have a 20 x 20′ lovely butterfly garden full of joe pye week, swamp butterfly weed and swamp hibiscus plus a few other native plants that like “wet feet” – and I no longer have to worry about not being able to mw the middle of the yard. The three plants have filled in the space (along with a few others I planted), but have never escaped that area – the lawn mower has easily handled any that have (though I’ve not noticed them doing so), at least in my zone 7 East Coast garden. Granted the joe pye is 3-5′ tall and the butterfly weed is 3′ tall, but they are great at the back of any other plants. Thanks for the great post letting people know about this good idea for handling wet spots and conserving and filtering water and run off.
    Cathy Larkin recently posted..How to use Twitter Lists My POV

    • says

      Cathy I actually have a meadow behind my fenced in yard that has those plants. I do also have Joe Pye in another moist area. It is a native for me and loves to seed itself all over so I have to be careful with it. I think I may just add a few to the new rain gardens to see how it does. I collect the milkweed seeds in fall and love to continue to seed the meadow but I’ll add a few to the rain gardens too. I have one native hibiscus in one of the rain gardens so we’ll see how it does. I love these plants and don’t mind that they are tall…glad you enjoyed the post and thx for the suggestions!!
      Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Hope Grows in August


  1. […] Joe Pye weed or Eupatorium purpureum is a top choice for wildlife.  This gorgeous plant draws in bees, butterflies and birds.  It can grow from 2-6 feet high in any moist shade to sun spot in the garden.  It is especially lovely at the back of a border or in a meadow.  They will seed themselves around the garden.  I don’t consider them aggressive, but a nuisance if you don’t want the seedlings popping up all over.  To control the seeding, I have put some in dry sunny locations where they still thrive, but are less likely to send out volunteers.  Easy to grow and deer resistant too.  I find these are a must for any wet area in your garden or in a rain garden. […]

  2. […] natives.  So we have amended the soil, and continue to do so as we plant woodland natives again.  I have also added rain gardens to help with drainage and flooding.  Thankfully our house was built high up on the property so we do not have flooding issues in the […]

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