How To Plant A Rain Garden

A rain garden in northeast Ohio. (Photo by Anne Glausser, QUEST Ohio)
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May 22, 2014 - 6:30am

It’s springtime and many people are putting on their gardening gloves and planting some tomatoes or maybe tulips in their backyard. But there’s another kind of garden that you might want to consider. Anne Glausser with our partner station QUEST Ohio digs in.


Jen Greiser is a natural resource manager for the Cleveland Metroparks and I met up with her in Parma, a couple streets down from their new Watershed Stewardship Center at the West Creek Reservation.  It’s a typical residential neighborhood with homes, lawns, and sidewalks, but in some spots, there’s something missing: the grass. “So for homeowners that signed on to the project,” Greiser said, “we installed what we call right of way rain gardens and so we worked with a contractor to take up the grass and dig some depressional planting beds and install some plants.”

This project is one of many initiatives in this area, and across the country, that use plantings and greenery to help trap stormwater. 

Northeast Ohio is a rainy place and all that water—if not absorbed into the soil—runs off, mixes with pollutants and sewage, overloads the wastewater treatment plants, and ends up spewing out untreated into Lake Erie.  Not a good thing, for people or wildlife or the lake’s overall ecology.

So one of the key strategies for keeping stormwater out of the lake, and in the soil, is to create what’s called “green infrastructure.”

This can be done on a large-scale with stuff like urban trees, wetland protection, permeable pavement, and floodplain management.  But it can also be done on a smaller scale, by individuals. 

So in the spirit of springtime, I’m here to learn about how to plant a backyard rain garden.

To get started, Greiser suggests a little observation during the next rainy day.  “Just put on a raincoat, grab an umbrella, run outside and stand out there for a little while,” she said.  Your neighbors might wonder what you’re doing, she warned, but don’t let that deter you.  It’s important to find out where the water’s pooling up.  This is the spot to plant your rain garden.  And it doesn’t have to be huge—it can fit right in to other landscaping schemes. 

Next, it’s time to get your hands dirty with some digging. “Instead of our traditional planting beds that are raised above the ground,” she said,"we’re kind of flipping that over and we’re going to have a more bowl-shaped area for planting.”

You want to fill out your bowl with plants that have deep root systems.  Native grasses and shrubs take their roots deep into the ground so they loosen up the soil and allow for more water to seep in.  A mowed lawn, in comparison, has a really shallow root system.

You can also pick pretty plants, whatever suits your fancy, but watch out for the more tasty varietals, which Greiser says can just be deer candy.

You might want to also consider some soil amendments, especially if you’ve got a lot of clay.

Then, that’s it.  Wait for the rain.  Your garden should soak up the water in just a day or two, so there’s no standing water.

Greiser says backyards are an important part of a city’s overall stormwater management.  “While they seem small in and of themselves, the residential areas make up such a great percentage of our land use here, so they’re really critical and to the extent that we can get whole neighborhoods involved--it’s a cumulative effect,” she said.

Some communities even offer incentives to residents who plant rain gardens in their yards. 

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District will knock off 25 percent from a homeowner’s stormwater fee—if and when those fees resurface after ongoing court battles. 

Other cities give a major rebate to cover the cost of a rain garden installation.  One pilot program in Cincinnati actually paid people to plant them.

Jen Greiser says would-be rain gardeners should aim to get their plants in soon to soak up the May showers. 

Then you can proudly tell your friends you’re home to a “green sewer.”

NET News is a partner in the QUEST science reporting project.  QUEST is a collaboration of six public broadcasters around the country.  It is a multimedia series that strives to deepen our understanding of some of today’s most pressing sustainability topics.  For more QUEST science stories, click here.

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