Soak Up the Rain With Rain Gardens

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Q: What is a rain garden?

 A:        Many areas of the county have been fortunate to receive fairly routine rain showers over the past couple of weeks. Sometimes though we may have received too much rain at one time causing run off in our gardens and landscapes. Rain gardens are a fairly new concept that has been catching on in many home landscapes over the past years to help slow down water run off and direct water through the soil into ground water instead of storm drains.

The idea of rain gardens came about because of the growing concern over storm water. At a home, there are many hard surfaces that water runs off of as it travels to a storm drain. After a rain, hard surfaces like roofs, driveways, and sidewalks often fill up with water. This water travels over the hard surfaces into a storm drain and then to nearby streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The problem is that as the water runs over these hard surfaces, the water is picking up any material that is on the surface, like pollutants, oils, fertilizers, etc. Whatever pollutants the water is picking up is being carried with the water into local water sources. Another problem with water runoff is that it also causes soil erosion, picking up much needed top soil and carrying it away.

Rain gardens are a way that the home gardener can help improve water quality while still having an attractive landscape. Rain gardens are not ponds and are not designed to hold water permanently. Instead, rain gardens are designed to collect runoff after a rain and allow the water to slowly infiltrate into the soil over a couple of hours. By allowing the water to slowly seep into the soil, you are doing a couple of things. One is that you are allowing the soil and plant roots to remove pollutants from the water before the water ends up in a stream or river. The second thing you are doing is slowing down the water so that it does not cause as much soil erosion as it travels to a storm drain.

Rain gardens are a man-made depression in the ground that is filled with plants that can tolerant standing in water for a few hours and also tolerant dry weather when there is no rain. Rain gardens can be designed to suit any type of landscape. Rain gardens can be different sizes and shapes and there are a wide varieties of plants to choose from, everything from trees and shrubs to perennials and ornamental grasses.

Rain gardens are not hard to plan or install but there are some important points to keep in mind. Before grabbing the shovel and buying plants, you want to spend some time observing your lawn and landscape during heavy rains. Make note of where the water travels during these rains and in what direction. Pay particular attention to where the water goes from the downspouts at your house and how it travels to the storm drain. Make note of areas where erosion often occurs during a rain. You will want to place your rain garden in a location to catch the water before it reaches a storm drain.

As for plant selection, a rain garden should consist of plants that can tolerate the extreme conditions during very wet and dry periods. Plants in a rain garden can include groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, trees, and ornamental grasses. This website also has all the in’s and out’s of rain gardens, including rain garden plans.

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Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County. Horticulture program information can be found at //wayne.ces.ncsu.edu/. Forward any questions you would like answered from this week’s column to Jessica.Strickland@waynegov.com.