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If you have a front or a back yard, you probably have room to plant a rain garden. Not only are rain gardens attractive and colorful, they also have environmental benefits. The rain garden mostly or entirely relies on rainfall, which conserves water. A rain garden can do double-duty by growing herbs. The plants will also provide food for butterflies and bees. A rain garden can help keep soil and pesticides from running off into local ponds and streams.  

Creating a small rain garden is a realistic project even for someone who isn’t a gardener. You can quickly learn what plants to select for an attractive garden. The Rain Garden Network offers an information packet that gives step-by-step instructions and includes a guide to plant selection. This article summarizes their general advice on how to create and maintain a rain garden and adds some design tips.

Choose a Location:

Gardening experts recommend finding a spot in full sun or medium sunlight. This will take some planning if you haven’t been paying attention to which areas get how much light throughout the day and from one season to another. An area in full sun in the summer may well be heavily shaded in winter when the sun is lower and the surrounding trees still have their leaves.

Sunlight is one consideration, but drainage is at least as important. The point of a rain garden is to capture rainwater. The easiest way to do this is to select a low spot in the yard that gets a decent amount of sunlight all year and build the garden there. The other option is to extend and redirect a downspout so water from the gutters can flow into the garden.

Design the Garden:

Take some time to lay out the garden on paper first. Experiment with shapes that make full use of the available space. Your best choice may be to replace an old flower garden or to fill in a geometric space in the yard. In that case, your design has already been drafted. If you are starting from nothing, try out a creative shape like a jelly bean shape or an “L” that wraps around an existing feature in the yard. The only key design consideration is the water source. Where will the rainwater come from? You may have to extend a downspout from the corner to the garden. You may know of a low spot in the yard where plenty of water would collect.

Select Plants:

Once you have an outline done, you can decide what to plant and how to arrange the plants. Consider aesthetics, lighting, climate, and the purpose of the garden. Plants in a rain garden are going to be soaked periodically, so they need to be able to tolerate being waterlogged for short periods. This is less of an issue in drier climates but is worth keeping mind anyway. If possible, look for plants that flower at various times of the year. Perennials create a garden that needs less maintenance at lower cost. Annuals are great for variety and visual interest, at the cost of more time and money. Whether the soil is moist, dry, or average, impacts the best choice of plants.

Lay Out the Garden:

Now that you have a design and a selection of plants in mind, you can decide how to arrange those plants in the garden. At this point you are just thinking about the aesthetics of the garden. You might play with different arrangements of colors and shapes for example.

Before you dig, contact the utility company to make sure there are no cables or pipes running under your planned garden space. You will be digging up to eight inches deep.

Dig the Garden:

Remove the existing turf grass and some topsoil, or about 4 to 8 inches of the current yard. You will add compost. The soil and grass you dug up may prove useful in creating a berm around the garden. Before planting, you will want to prepare the soil by adding compost from your own compost pile or from the garden store for $5 to $9 a bag. You will need enough compost to create a layer 2-3 inches thick. Add the compost then mix thoroughly with the existing soil.


If you aren’t an experienced gardener just follow the instructions that came with the various plants. They will have different space needs. Use your design to place each plant, then dig out spots for each with a hand trowel. You may want to use the soil you previously removed to create a barrier around the garden. Otherwise, there may be too much water flowing over the plants and soaking into the garden bed.

Mulch and Water:

The last step is to add mulch around the plants to hold water. Select shredded wood chips that are relatively large. Bags of mulch are cheap. The Rain Garden Network recommends that you avoid cypress because it tends to come from old-growth cypress trees in wetlands.

The garden should be able to sustain itself on rainfall, but it may take some time to get there. You may need to water the new garden every other day for a few weeks if there isn’t much rain. If the garden is all tiny herbs and flowering plants, that may be enough. If your garden features larger bushes and small trees, they may need supplemental watering during the first two years.

Perform Regular Maintenance:

Your rain garden shouldn’t need water or fertilizer after that initial start-up period. Water only in dry spells. Weed regularly and replace the mulch as needed. You should also plan to observe how the garden responds to heavy rain. Does water run out of an area you did not expect? Add extra soil in those areas. If mulch is being washed away, add rocks to break up the flow of water. You might also want to add a berm 2 or 3 inches high around the garden to control the water. Prune and weed as necessary.