12 Benefits of a Rain Garden

a rain garden with a pathway for the rain

Rain may be just what your grass needs, but storms can stress your sump-pump and leave your yard soggy and swamped with puddles. That’s where rain gardens come to the rescue. Rain gardens are like spongy, flower-covered superheroes for your lawn. 

Rain gardens protect your home from water damage and flooding, improve your lawn’s drainage, and do wonders for the environment.

So if your lawn needs a hero to swoop in and conquer your stormwater problem, consider a rain garden. 

What is a rain garden?

infographic explaining how a rain garden works

Imagine an enormous sponge filled with plants, and you’ve got a rain garden. A rain garden, also known as a bioretention cell, is a basin filled with native plants, flowers, rocks, and permeable soil designed to capture and absorb stormwater flowing away from your house. 

  • Rain gardens are built in a depression at the bottom of a slight slope. They use pipes or swales (stone channels like small streams) to capture fast-moving rainwater.
  • Rain gardens act as temporary bathtubs, holding polluted water as plant roots and soil filter out pollutants. Water percolates out of the rain garden into the surrounding soil, recharging the groundwater and taking a load off your local sewer system. 
  • Rain gardens divert rainwater from your roof, driveway, and other hardscapes away from the foundation of your home to reduce the risk of water damage. They also decrease the level of runoff that flows into the storm sewer and harms local aquatic ecosystems.

12 reasons to build a rain garden

There’s a treasure trove of reasons to begin digging. The benefits of a rain garden include:

1. No mowing needed 

Instead of dealing with the demanding mowing schedule of turfgrass, you can sit back and watch butterflies and birds flock to your garden. 

Rain gardens should be trimmed, mulched, and maintained to prevent clogging, but you’ll never have to mow.

2. Water conservation 

After rain gardens are fully established, they won’t require watering except in extreme drought conditions. They save you time and money while reducing your carbon footprint. Water conservation is especially important as water shortages become increasingly common across the U.S.

3. Pollinator-friendly

Native plants in rain gardens will bring birds, butterflies, and bees fluttering into your lawn. Popular rain garden plants for pollinators include:

Check out the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant list to find plants in your region that will make butterflies happy.  

4. Groundwater recharge

Rain gardens help recharge depleted groundwater sources. Water captured by a rain garden drains back into the soil, which replenishes local aquifers.

Groundwater recharge is an eco-friendly alternative to expensive surface water storage methods like reservoir expansion, which can hit taxpayers and ecosystems hard.

5. Biodiversity and wildlife

Rocks and native plants create a perfect habitat for wildlife, and you’ll soon see native birds and beneficial insects fluttering about your rain garden. 

Rain gardens attract:

  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Dragonflies
  • Frogs
  • Toads
  • Turtles
  • Native birds like finches and hummingbirds

Soil-improving microorganisms also will make your rain garden their home.

6. No fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide required

Native plants are adapted to your region and soil type, so they won’t need fertilizers or harsh chemicals. This will save you time and money while protecting the environment.

7. Water pollution protection

Rain gardens divert rainwater away from storm sewers, reducing the load on the sewer system. This means that less contaminated water gushes into rivers and lakes and harms aquatic wildlife. 

Rain gardens give water time to evaporate into the air. They filter the rest of the water through roots and soil so fewer pollutants enter streams and rivers. In fact, the average home rain garden filters 30,000 gallons of water per year. That’s enough to fill a bathtub 600 times! 

This filtration process improves water quality and prevents harmful algal blooms.

8. Flood risk reduction

Rain gardens divert water away from your home’s foundation, preventing basement flooding and seepage. Water will flow down your swales or pipes away from your home, instead of pooling right at the base of your house.

As long as your rain garden is planted at least 10 feet away from your foundation, it will serve as a perfect method for water diversion. 

9. Drainage improvements 

Rain gardens soak up 30% more water than regular lawns, so they’ll prevent muddy puddles and soggy soil. In yards with drainage issues, kids and pets can play outside days after a rainstorm and still track mud into the house. 

With a rain garden, water will drain from your lawn faster, so you’ll have less slip-sliding and fewer messes.

10. Higher property value

A rain garden is an attractive addition to your lawn that can impress both your neighbors and future buyers. Though rain gardens don’t tend to increase property values tremendously, having one in your yard could add more than $1,500 to your home’s selling price.

11. Rebate and incentive programs

If water pollution from runoff is a major problem in your area, you could get a government rebate for installing a rain garden. Rebates are designed to encourage homeowners to convert traditional turfgrass into an eco-friendly garden.

If you live in the Puget Sound area, you can check if you’re eligible for a rebate through the 12,000 Rain Gardens project. There are similar projects and governmental rebates across the country that you can find with a quick internet search.

12. You can get creative with them

You can make your rain garden all your own by incorporating your favorite sculptures and architecture. Add your own art to your garden or commission a local artist or sculptor for unique pieces. Geodes and colorful stones are also dazzling additions. 

How do rain gardens work? 

  • When it rains, water flows down your lawn from impervious surfaces like driveways, roofs, parking lots, and patios. It picks up harmful pollutants like fertilizer, herbicide, and sealant chemicals along the way. 
  • Pipes and swales channel water into the basin. 
  • The basin acts like a bathtub, temporarily stopping and holding the water.
  • Permeable soil and deep roots filter the water, straining out harmful chemicals, nutrients, and sediment. 
  • When the water reaches streams and lakes, it’s much cleaner and it won’t shock aquatic ecosystems.

What’s wrong with runoff?

Rain gardens substantially reduce runoff, but why is runoff such a big deal? Won’t water just flow back to the same place eventually, regardless of whether there’s a rain garden or not? 

Rainwater runoff doesn’t sound as threatening as wildfires or oil spills, but it does a lot more environmental damage than you’d think. The problem with runoff has to do with water temperature, speed, and pollutants.

  • During rainstorms, water is on the move, and it’ll rush wherever the land takes it. It gushes from hot roofs to downspouts, makes its way across fertilized and pesticide-filled lawns, flows across chemical-treated asphalt and oil-coated streets, and flies from storm drains right into local waterways.
  • Stormwater runoff pollutes the aquatic ecosystem with chemicals and sediment. The nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer create algae blooms and dead zones (areas with extremely low oxygen that cannot sustain animal and plant life). Plants perish, and animals either die or are left without a habitat. 
  • Fast-flowing runoff also causes thermal shock: Fish, turtles, and other organisms adapted to the normal water temperature can die when the water undergoes a sudden temperature change. Animals may be forced to change their migration and spawning patterns in response to rising water temperatures. 

Rain gardens stop runoff, protecting native plants and animals to keep your environment healthy. 

Misconceptions and questions about rain gardens

If you love the idea of rain gardens but are concerned about the details, you’re not alone. Some homeowners are wary about rain gardens based on common misconceptions. 

1. Will rain gardens attract mosquitoes? 

No, rain gardens won’t attract mosquitoes. If your rain garden is draining properly, it will filter out all standing water in 24-72 hours. Most, if not all, rainwater will be gone within a day. Mosquitoes take four to seven days to complete their water lifecycle, so they never get a chance to grow in rain gardens. 

If you’re concerned about mosquitoes, they tend to go for old birdbaths, tires, pots, and pans under planters. 

2. Will my rain garden look untidy compared to regular turfgrass lawns? 

Well, it depends on what you grow in your rain garden and how you want it to look. You can choose for your rain garden to resemble a wild meadow of native plants and grasses. However, you also can create a very clean design with rock features, well-placed ground cover, and attractive trees and flowering perennials. 

Placing tall plants in the middle of your garden can help provide a focal point. Edging also will give your rain garden strong lines and definition.

Ultimately, the tidiness of your rain garden depends on the growing style and speed of your plants, where you place your plants, and how much trimming and pruning you want to do. 

3. Will only wetland plants grow in rain gardens? 

Not at all. Rain gardens are not swamps; they filter water quickly and will be dry for long periods of time. A variety of plants that can tolerate both high levels of water and drought work best for rain gardens. Your rain garden should be divided into three zones to accommodate plants that thrive at different degrees of wetness. 

4. Are rain gardens hard to maintain? 

Rain gardens are very easy to maintain, but they do take time to establish. The first year will require a bit of work: You’ll have to water consistently (young rain gardens require about 1 inch of water per week) and weed as needed. 

In general, rain gardens take two to three years to become self-sufficient. In those first two to three years, your garden will need to be watered deeply and infrequently during the dry season. After that, you won’t have to water at all unless you’re in the midst of a drought. 

With regular mulching and yearly inspections to prevent cloggings, you can expect your rain garden to last about 10 years. 

5. How large is the typical rain garden?

For single-family homes, rain gardens are typically 150 to 400 square feet, but even small rain gardens have big impacts on local ecological health.

6. Where in my lawn can I plant a rain garden?

To learn about the best place to plant a rain garden in your yard, make sure to always call 811 before you dig to make sure you don’t hit a utility line. 

Letting a rain garden be your hero

If your lawn has been practicing its best damsel-in-distress voice, it may be time to let a rain garden save the day. Enlist your family and friends to help build your own rain garden. If you’d rather relax and watch the butterflies arrive, you can call a local lawn care professional to get your rain garden ready to soar, cape and all.

Main Photo Credit: wes hill | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.