5 rain garden ideas for your stormwater runoff

5 rain garden ideas for your stormwater runoff

Rain gardens are a way to keep stormwater from running off your yard while making it more beautiful. With a little planning, you can install a beautiful, easy-to-maintain rain garden that keeps water in your yard where your plants can use it—and not running off and washing fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, pollutants, and animal waste into the storm drain and local streams and ponds.

Rain garden design tips

Most residential rain gardens are fairly compact, typically ranging in size from 60 square feet to 180 square feet. The water gardens can be any shape and size including popular designs like a straight rectangular flower bed, a circle of flowers, or a crescent-shaped garden along a slope.

The standard way to size a rain garden is to make it 30% of the size of the surface it drains into. Look at the nearby roof, driveway, or sidewalk that sheds water during storms. (Also check for gutters and yard drains.) If your roof is 1,000 square feet, make your rain garden 300 square feet to collect the runoff.

Plant flowers and shrubs that do best in drier conditions at the edge of your rain garden, and water-loving plants at the center, which will stay damp the longest as your rain garden drains.

Plants mentioned below should thrive in hardiness zones four through eight and stay healthy in full sun to partial shade unless specified otherwise.

Rain garden design ideas

1. The minimalist

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Create a minimalist rain garden look with mulch.

Get the look:

You don’t need an elaborate planting scheme to have a rain garden. If you’re not into fussy flowers, you can make a simple, modern-looking rain garden from stones, mulch, and native grasses and sedges like this garden of contrasting squares.

Pair a shimmery gold sedge like round, mounding Evergold (or tussock sedge if you prefer a more upright look) with soft-edged, deeper green Pennsylvania sedge, green and red switch grass, or spiked Appalachian sedge, and leave the wet centers open with pale round stones and contrasting mulch. Avoid dyed mulch if possible, and be aware that the open stone center will need weeding (maybe a lot of weeding).

2. Going green

Two images of green spider plant and grass.

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Mix and match your greenery.

Get the look:

Got a shady, damp site? Plant short ferns and shade-tolerant grasses to make the site greener and slow water down like this streetside garden in Portland, Oregon. You can include a few low shrubs like Clethra alnifolia “Hummingbird” or Itea virginica “Little Henry,” which both top out at three-feet (so they won’t block drivers’ sightlines) and offer delicate white midsummer blooms and fall color.

You can also plant spring bulbs like daffodils or iris among the grasses. Their foliage will die back by midsummer, when the grasses start getting big.

3. Big, bright blooms for birds and bees

Two close up images of purple coneflower and wheat grass.

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Create a pop of color with the purple cone flower.

Get the look:

Rain gardens can be the perfect spot for big, bright summer flowers, like in these rain gardens in Canada, Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Mix and match your summer blooms with green grasses and sedges for the lowest, wettest areas, and you’ll have a bright, beautiful yard from mid-summer into fall. Bonus: butterflies, bees, and pollinators love these flowers—and birds love the seed heads, so don’t cut the flowers down when they’re done blooming! Leave them to feed our feathered friends.

Try to buy native species instead of brand-named varieties of flowering plants if possible. The branded plants typically have been bred to have different colors, petals, or shape than the native species, and are less attractive to pollinators.

For the simplest pollinator-friendly big-bloom garden, pair Black-eyed Susans with purple cone flowers, like in this garden featured by the Watershed Institute.

4. The Big Three

Two close ups of daisies and white flowers.

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Bulk up your perennials with some Black eyed Susans.

Get the look:

Sometimes, just a few big plants are all you need to make a garden spectacular. Rain Dog Designs in Seattle created a showstopper rain garden made up of just three main plants: Russian sage, Black-eyed Susans, and Autumn Joy sedum, with pebbles and water-loving grass for the wetter center. This Cincinnati rain garden takes that same Autumn Joy sedum and pairs it with purple cone flowers and tall Sorghastrum grass for a different, stunning look.

5. Purple Rain

Purple flowers and a butterfly

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Add lovely purple plants to your rain garden.

Get the look:

This garden won’t bring you any sorrow or cause you any pain, in fact, it will do quite the opposite by spicing up your usual greenscape with a pop of purple flowers and foliage.

Pair daisy-like purple coneflowers with spikes of fuchsia blazing star, and frothy lavender Russian sage and tall blue-purple blue vervain for summer blooms, with yellow-centered purple New England asters to keep the color coming through fall. Switchgrass rounds out the wet center with purplish-red flower spikes in the spring, turning yellow in the fall, while a grape-bubble-gum-purple Beautyberry bushes and tall purple-leaved “Black lace” elderberry shrubs bear bird-feeding berries.

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