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Rain gardens are like do-it-yourself backyard aquifers that recharge your plants and trees.

Slow the flow with rain gardens

For most Texas gardeners there is no more welcome event than a good rain. Those of us living in the Central or Western parts of the state cheer nearly any rainfall, and increasingly, many of us are finding creative ways to hold onto and more fully benefit from what some folks call “Mother Nature’s Finest” – rain water.

Those who water by hand appreciate rain because it saves us a lot of time and effort, while those with irrigation systems, at least those who remember to reset their sprinklers when it does rain, appreciate it because it helps lower their water bills. But, beyond those benefits, all true gardeners can actually see the difference rain water makes when compared to the pumped and processed stuff. Plants survive with treated water, but they thrive on rainfall: dull, wilted leaves plump up and shine, new growth appears, and buds bloom.

Rain garden benefits for wildlife and watersheds

Not surprisingly, one of the hottest trends in gardening right now is “rain water harvesting.” Rain barrels and cisterns are becoming more common all of the time, and now more and more folks are creating rain gardens to capture the rainfall that would otherwise wash down their gutters, driveways and streets.

I think of rain gardens as do-it-yourself backyard aquifers that recharge your plants and trees. The concept is ridiculously simple and there are many benefits for homeowners, our communities, and our creeks and rivers too. Converting a patch of lawn grass to a lush native garden will also provide much appreciated water, food and shelter for wildlife.

Rain gardens come in many different sizes and shapes, and can be customized to fit your garden style.

Rain gardens come in many different sizes and shapes, and can be customized to fit your garden style. / Photo courtesy of City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department

Rain gardens are sunken planting beds that hold storm water on your property and allow it to percolate down into the soil. Capturing and then releasing the water in this way provides the kind of deep watering that most plants thrive on. Better still, the soil in our yards acts as a natural filter that removes pollutants. Because the water absorbed through our ground often feeds into rivers, this keeps our streams cleaner.

Aside from improving water quality, rain gardens have water quantity benefits.  Capturing rainfall on our properties helps “slow the flow” during storms, reducing the risk of flooding and stream bank erosion. By slowly releasing water through underground seeps and drainages, rain gardens also help maintain a more consistent flow of life-giving water in our streams.

Creating your rain garden

Rain garden beds take many forms and can fit into any garden style, whether formal or naturalistic. The key to creating a successful rain garden is in choosing the right site, digging it down to an appropriate depth and guiding storm overflow to it by utilizing the natural contours of your yard or directing the overflow through a channel like a dry creek bed that starts at a gutter down spout. If you need help finding the right spot for your rain garden, a landscaper can help you with this step.

If your soil is loose and gravelly, you can dig your rain garden planting bed down by as much as one foot or more. Or, if you are in heavy, slow-draining clay you may want to dig a more shallow bed to avoid having water stand for too long. However, amending the soil at the bottom of the bed with granite sand for increased drainage is a great option for those determined to dig deep in clay.

In addition to being a pollinator favorite, Mexican bush sage is a Texas native plant that typically does well in rain gardens.

In addition to being a pollinator favorite, Mexican bush sage is a Texas native plant that typically does well in rain gardens. / Photo courtesy of Central Texas Gardener

Most native plants can deal with periodic inundations of water, but be careful not to choose desert species susceptible to drowning. I’d avoid cacti altogether and introduced plants like lavender, which famously hate wet feet. Here in Texas, native ornamental grasses like Gulf muhly and Lindheimer’s muhly are ideal candidates.  Fruit-bearing shrubs like yaupon holly and Turk’s cap are sure to please wildlife, and flowering perennials like Mexican bush sage and tropical sage are favorites with many pollinators, including humming birds. Snake herb, a native Texas groundcover with violet flowers, reportedly also thrives in rain gardens. All of these plants can endure both drought and the occasional inundation once established.

Other considerations

  • Select an area on gently sloping or flat land. (The slope should be less than 10 percent.)
  • Choose a sunny or partly sunny site; these work best for blooming plants.
  • Make sure any overflow will not impact your home or your neighbors.
  • Avoid areas with utility lines. Be sure to call 1-800-DIG-TESS (344-8377) to identify the location of underground pipes and utilities.

For more information, the City of Austin’s Grow Green program has an excellent, downloadable Rain Garden Guide online.

Treat your landscape to more of Mother Nature’s Finest by slowing the flow and beautifying your yard with a rain garden!

Tom Spencer

Tom Spencer

Program director at National Wildlife Federation
Tom has a public service career spanning over 35 years. Tom is passionate about the outdoors and expresses his love of nature through photography, writing and gardening. He also hosts the Emmy Award winning gardening program “Central Texas Gardener.”
Tom Spencer

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