by David Salman

Rain Garden at Chatfield
Chatfield Farms has a beautiful rain garden on their premises designed and installed by Lauren Springer Oden.

Water is the most valuable resource on our planet. And yet, people tend to waste it and not treat it with care. I like to think that gardening gives us a greater appreciation of how plants respond to water and how to more efficiently use our precious water resources on our landscapes and gardens.

The use of rain gardens is an ecologically intentioned way to deal with water run-off from roofs and other hard surfaces. A rain garden is basically a depression in the ground where the run-off water is collected. It's planted with a colorful mix of durable perennial flowers, ornamental grasses and shrubs whose roots filter and clean the water that percolates down into the soil and recharges our aquifers.

Benefits Of Planting A Rain Garden

Rain gardens are a great low-tech way to take water that flows from our roofs and other hard surfaces and allows it to be slowly absorbed by the soil. This helps reduce the destructive flow of dirty storm water run-off into our streams and rivers, and creates beneficial habitat, especially when using native plants.

Basic Rain Garden Design Considerations

Water gardening is a very simple concept, but we do need to take into account a few factors that influence water absorption into the soil. Without turning the construction of a rain garden into a complicated engineering project, attention to some basic design concepts will ensure that your rain garden is successful.

Best Plants For A Rain Garden

A rain garden is a shallow depression (8 to 12 inches deep) into which run-off water drains from a roof, driveway or other hard surfaces. This wide, shallow planting area is planted with perennials, ornamental grasses, and shrubs that will tolerate both wet and dry soil moisture levels. These include Aster, False Indigo (Baptisia), Milkweed (Asclepias), Tall Phlox , Goldenrod (Solidago), Coneflower (Echinacea), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium), Rain Lilies (Zepheranthes) and ornamental grasses.

Listed below are some considerations that are helpful to begin thinking about installation of a rain garden. (See "Rain Gardening References" at the end of this blog for more details and construction diagrams.)

Soil Type For Rain Gardens - Identify your soil type.

Rain Garden
Another example of the resourceful rain garden at Denver Botanic Garden's Chatfield Facility
  • Plants need to be matched to the soil in the rain garden. In heavy clay soils, only clay-loving species will thrive. Likewise, in sandy soils, choose sand-loving plants.
  • Heavy clay soils drain slowly while sandy soils quickly absorb water. Thus rain gardens planted in clay will need to be larger in area (square footage) than those installed in faster draining loam and sandy soils. Otherwise, standing water can become a problem.
  • It's recommended that the soil where a rain garden is being considered be tested for drainage.
  • To do so, dig 12” wide by 12" deep hole and fill with water to saturate soil; refill in a few hours after water drains.
  • After filling the hole a second time, make note of how long the water takes to drain away. The water should completely drain within 12 hours. If not, this indicates poor drainage that will require moving the garden to another site to avoid long-term standing water.

Matching Surface Area To Your Rain Garden

Size the rain garden's area (sq. footage) to match the sq. footage of the roof area (or other hard surfaces) that will drain into it. Be sure the depression will hold more than 1" of rainfall so it will hold enough to hold several days of rain. Here are some useful metrics to help size the rain garden depression.

  • A 100 sq. ft. by 1-foot deep rain garden will hold approximately 750 gallons of water. With one inch of rain, a 1,000 sq. ft. roof will yield 622 gallons of water. So, this 10 ft. x 10 ft. x 1 ft deep depression will be large enough to accommodate 1 inch of rain runoff from a 1,000 sq. ft. of roof.
  • To calculate the amount of water that runs off your roof (or other surfaces) after an inch of rain, use the following formula: divide the square footage by 12, multiply by rain depth in inches then multiply by 7.48 (# of gallons in a sq. ft.)
  • A 1,000 sq. ft area that receives an inch of rain yields 623 gallons of water: 1000 /12) x 1 x 7.48
  • To calculate how much water runs off with more or less than 1 inch, use this modification. divide sq. ft. by 12. Multiply by the rain depth in inches. Then multiply by 7.48.
  • Start small. A 100 sq. ft. rain garden is a good size to start. As you gain experience, you'll be ready to construct additional ones to accommodate additional water run-off.

Sun Exposure For A Rain Garden

It's a good idea to locate your rain garden in full sun, whenever possible, as this greatly increases the number of suitable plants that can be used.

Rain Garden Soil Preparation

Here are a few basics to help you understand the process. (See " Rain Gardening References" at the end of the blog for much more detailed information.)

  • Excavate the rain garden to a depth of approximately 8 to 12 inches in depth. Be sure not to leave a vertical edge, but rather a gentle slope down to the bottom.
  • Take the soil from the depression and use it to mound up the edge and create a gentle slope that slants away from the edge.
  • Rototill the bottom of the depression to a depth of 8 to 10 inches to mix in a combination of compost (1/2 to 1 cu. yd. per 100 sq. ft.) and Yum Yum Mix (4 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.) before planting.
Rain Garden Pre-Planned Garden
Rain Garden Pre-Planned Garden

The Water Cleansing Pre-Planned Rain Garden

We have done the plant selection for you, by choosing good looking plants that do well in alternating wet and dry soil conditions. These gardens have been designed using North American native plants to maximize their resilience and value for habitat creation. They’re suitable for planting across much of the US (zones 4-7) and will color your landscape with shades of pink, yellow and white. There are two garden sizes (9 or 18 plants), each of which comes with premium plants, planting diagram, and plant care guide.

The Large Pre-Planned Rain Garden covers approx. 100 sq. ft. and includes the following perennials; (3) each of Asclepias incarnata, Monarda fistulosa and Physostegia virginiana 'Crystal Peak White', (2) each of Phlox paniculata Jeana , Ratibida pinnata , Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' and Muhlenbergia reverchonii and (1) Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' for a total of 18 plants.

The Small Pre-Planned Rain Garden covers approximately 50 sq. ft. and includes the following perennials: (2) Asclepias incarnata and (1) each of Monarda fistulosa , Physostegia virginiana 'Crystal Peak White', Phlox paniculata Jeana , Ratibida pinnata , Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' , Muhlenbergia reverchonii and Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' for a total of 9 plants.

  1. Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden

    Plant our drought resistant Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Panned Garden to grow more flowers and foliage while using less water. Perfect for hot, dry, sunny gardens, this eye-catching combinat...

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    Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden
    As low as $172.32 Sale $155.08
    Per Garden of 18 Plants
    Plant our drought resistant Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Panned Garden to grow more flowers and foliage while using less water. Perfect for hot, dry, sunny gardens, this eye-catching combination of long-blooming perennials will light up the landscape with bright, clear colors. Easy-care plants feature inedible foliage that keep rabbits and deer away. Large garden of 27 plants covers 190 sq ft, small garden of 18 plants covers 100 sq ft. (For gardeners in coastal CA, OR, and WA, plant the Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden For The West Coast)
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  2. Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden  For The West Coast

    Plant our drought resistant Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Panned Garden For The West Coast to grow more flowers and foliage while using less water. Perfect for hot, dry, sunny gardens, this ey...

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    Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden For The West Coast Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Planned Garden For The West Coast
    As low as $169.32 Sale $152.38
    Per Garden of 18 Plants
    Plant our drought resistant Jumbo Waterwise Pre-Panned Garden For The West Coast to grow more flowers and foliage while using less water. Perfect for hot, dry, sunny gardens, this eye-catching combination of long-blooming perennials will light up the landscape with bright, clear colors. Easy-care plants feature inedible foliage that will keep rabbits and deer away. Garden of 18 plants covers 75 to 100 sq ft.
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  3. August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden, August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden, August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden

    The August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden brings together a wonderful assortment of our favorite perennials and ornamental grasses to keep things colorful through late summer and well...

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    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $188.83 Sale $169.94
    Per Garden of 17 Plants
    The August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden brings together a wonderful assortment of our favorite perennials and ornamental grasses to keep things colorful through late summer and well into fall. Blooming in shades of blue, pink, and ivory, this gardens expertly blends color, texture, and fragrance for a waterwise garden. Hummingbirds and butterflies will be drawn to the beautiful nectar-rich plants. Garden of 17 plants covers 50 sq ft.
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  4. Summer Dreams Pre-Planned Garden

    The flowers in the Summer Dreams Pre-Planned Garden are favorites of butterflies, honeybees, and gardeners alike. Designed with low-maintenance perennials, you can enjoy your garden...

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    Summer Dreams Pre-Planned Garden Summer Dreams Pre-Planned Garden
    As low as $109.89 Sale $98.90
    Per Garden of 11 Plants
    The flowers in the Summer Dreams Pre-Planned Garden are favorites of butterflies, honeybees, and gardeners alike. Designed with low-maintenance perennials, you can enjoy your garden’s fragrance and bright colors blooming from mid-summer to early fall. Watch pollinators dance from flower to flower in the summer sunlight. Garden of 11 plants covers 30 sq ft.
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  5. Pollinator Paradise Pre-Planned Garden

    Rich with nectar and fragrance, the Pollinator Paradise Pre-Planned Garden is the perfect way to keep bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies well-fed from early summer to early fall. Wi...

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    Pollinator Paradise Pre-Planned Garden Pollinator Paradise Pre-Planned Garden
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $74.92 Sale $67.42
    Per Garden of 8 Plants
    Rich with nectar and fragrance, the Pollinator Paradise Pre-Planned Garden is the perfect way to keep bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies well-fed from early summer to early fall. With beautiful, easy-to-grow perennials, you'll enjoy this colorful garden as much as the pollinators. Suitable for most of the country, but not the desert southwest or deep south. Garden includes 8 plants covering 25 square feet.
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  6. Summer Showstopper Pre-Planned Garden

    The Summer Showstopper Pre-Planned Garden features boldly colorful, long-blooming perennials that can stand up to harsh summer heat. Designed for hellstrips, sidewalks, and tough, ho...

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    Summer Showstopper Pre-Planned Garden Summer Showstopper Pre-Planned Garden
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $177.83 Sale $160.04
    Per Garden of 17 Plants
    The Summer Showstopper Pre-Planned Garden features boldly colorful, long-blooming perennials that can stand up to harsh summer heat. Designed for hellstrips, sidewalks, and tough, hot, and dry garden sites that call for curb appeal, this low-maintenance garden blooms to attracting pollinators all season. Easy-to-grow plants are great for beginning gardeners. Garden of 17 plants covers 48 sq ft.
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  7. Serene Shade Garden

    The Serene Shade Pre-Planned Garden features groundcovers, ornamental grasses, and tall flowering perennials to brighten the shady areas of your yard. Easily create an oasis in the s...

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    Serene Shade Pre-Planned Garden Serene Shade Pre-Planned Garden
    As low as $140.24 Sale $126.21
    Per Garden of 16 Plants
    The Serene Shade Pre-Planned Garden features groundcovers, ornamental grasses, and tall flowering perennials to brighten the shady areas of your yard. Easily create an oasis in the shade with softly colored flowers that bloom from late spring to early fall. Lovely green and silvery blue foliage with warm autumn colors offer three seasons of texture and interest. Garden of 16 plants covers 80 sq ft, garden of 26 plants covers 187 sq ft.
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  8. Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden Design

    The Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden will create a relaxed cottage style perennial garden. Planting masses of nectar-rich flowers magnifies their visual impact and appea...

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    Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden
    As low as $158.84 Sale $142.95
    Per Garden of 16 Plants
    The Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden will create a relaxed cottage style perennial garden. Planting masses of nectar-rich flowers magnifies their visual impact and appeal to pollinators, helping butterflies find your garden. Flowers will multiply and spread year after year, offering bold blooms from late spring to late summer. Large garden of 30 plants covers 40 sq ft, small garden of 16 plants covers 40 sq ft.
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Rain Gardening References

Many state agricultural extension offices will have information on rain gardens and rain garden construction. But if that's not available or you need additional information, listed below are some excellent references to help gardeners gain a more in-depth understanding of rain garden design and installation.

Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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