COMMENTARY: Plant rain garden for beauty, better water quality

When it rains, it pours.

Lately in Delaware, it seems to just rain, and rain, and rain. If your yard gets more than a little bit wet after a storm, rain gardens are a great way to handle the moisture, spruce up your property and keep our waterways clean.

Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) leads rain garden projects at schools and community areas such as parks. But PDE also has advice on how to plant a rain garden at home.

Ask Sarah Bouboulis, the habitat project specialist for the PDE, and she can tell you that the main function of a rain garden is to filter and temporarily store storm water. Yes, storm water comes from rain. But in this case, storm water refers to rain or melted snow that sweeps across roofs, driveways, sidewalks and roads but can’t soak into the ground fast enough, or at all.

When this happens, storm water collects any dirt, petroleum, litter, animal feces, pesticides and excess fertilizer in its path and washes all that pollution into storm drains. This ultimately affects the cleanliness of the water that people and wildlife rely upon in Delaware.

Kate Layton

According the PDE’s Technical Report for the Delaware Estuary and Basin, close to 725,000 people — the bulk of Delaware’s population — lives within, and gets its drinking water from, the Delaware River watershed. Rain gardens do their part to keep storm water pollution from making its way into our water, making it cleaner in the long run.

How big should my garden be?

Anyone can plant a rain garden on their property if their home has a rain spout. First, you will need plenty of space. To figure out how much, divide the area of your house by 6 to establish the size. For example, if you have a 1,800 square-foot house with one rain spout, divide 1,800 by 6, which equals 300 square feet of garden area.

If your home has two rain spouts, make the garden at least 150 square feet. For a 1,800-square-foot home with four rain spouts, your garden area should be at least 75 square feet. Following this guide can help you create a rain garden that’s large enough to handle about an inch of water from the average storm, plus some overflow.

Where should I plant my rain garden?

Choose an area in your yard where storm water flows from your rain spout or driveway. Make sure the area is free of tree roots and is at least 10 feet away from foundations and utilities. You can also use hoses to divert water into your rain garden or another suitable location.

Rain gardens should be shaped like a bowl with a flat bottom and must absorb water after 24 to 48 hours. Before planting, test your chosen area by digging a hole to see if the ground absorbs the water in the recommended time. If the water stands too long, you know to choose another area. For spots in your yard that tend to collect water, but don’t absorb it very well, rain barrels are handy. Use the collected water for potted plants and to wash off outdoor surfaces. You can also attach a hose to the barrel to divert the water elsewhere.

Thirsty native plants are best

Obviously, the plants in your rain garden should like a lot of water (sorry, no cactus gardens). Bouboulis said native plants are best and require less maintenance. A few kinds to try are:

• Cardinal Flowers

• Blue Flag Iris

• Swamp Milkweed

• Winterberry Holly Bushes

• Joe Pye Weed

• Swamp Tick Seed

• Soft Rush

• Turtlehead

• Carex Sedges

Time to flourish

Once you plant your garden, give it time to establish. Rain gardens can take about three years to reach peak condition. Until then, you will need to maintain it like you would any other plants and flowers. During long dry spells, your rain garden will require watering.

So instead of complaining about the rain, do your part for clean water in the First State. Plant a rain garden and give storm water a happy place to flow. You’ll feel better then next time you turn on the tap.

For more information about PDE’s work with rain gardens, and to download an informational guides for homeowners, visit and click on “managing storm water runoff” under the “Save the Estuary” heading. You may also contact Sarah Bouboulis at

Kate Layton is marketing and communications manager for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

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