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Rain Gardens Basics

Did you know that even a small rain garden will have a big impact? For example, you live in South Carolina, which has an annual average rainfall of about 50", and your roof covers your 1,100 square foot house. You build a rain garden that is about 18' x 14' x 6" deep and direct the rainwater from just one downspout to your garden. Your rain garden would collect and filter a whopping 18,000 gallons of water in an average rainfall year! That's just one rain garden and only one downspout.

Basic Requirements of Rain Gardens:

  • The right location. Ten feet away from your basement, or 5 feet away from your slab. Keep the garden away from your septic field and water well, and away from large tree driplines. Rain gardens can be created in sunny or shady spots, so be sure to pay attention to the light requirements of the plants you choose.
  • Good drainage. Clay soils work best to make a rain garden because they slow the percolation of water; holding water while allowing it to slowly drain. This slow drainage directs the rain water back down into the soil to replenish underground water storage areas known as aquifers.

If you have clay soil, it must be amended with compost, organic matter, sand, and/or peat moss to increase its water absorption ability. Slowly work the amendments into the clay soil when it is not slimy wet. On the other hand, trying to work with rock-hard clay is no joy either. Choose a day when your clay soil is neither soggy, nor concrete hard!

If you are unsure of the type of soil you have, complete this simple test: pick up a handful of moist (but not soggy wet) soil from your garden, and squeeze it firmly; open your hand and compare the results with these:

  • It held its shape, and when you poked it lightly, it crumbled. That's loam, also known as the gardener's best friend.
  • It held its shape and stayed in your hand even when you poked it. That's clay soil.
  • It fell apart as soon as you opened your hand. That's sandy soil.

Now that you know what type of soil you have, you can work on improving it.If your test indicates sandy soil, you will need to add water-absorbing compost and topsoil to the rain-garden area.

  • The correct size for best efficiency. The size should be approximately one-third as large as the surface area that drains into it (such as your roof). Typically a rain garden is between 35 and 300 square feet, and a depth of 3 to 8 inches. You can calculate the correct size garden for your yard by going to
  • Overflow capability in extreme rainfall situations. This means making a notch in your berm. The berm is the soil, rocks or sod surrounding your rain garden that holds everything in place. The notch will allow excess water to be dispersed away from your garden. Locate the notch so that water will not be directed into storm drains, driveways or your neighbor's yard. The runoff should flow and spread over a grassy area of your lawn to drain naturally back into the soil.
  • Plants that tolerate wet feet as well as drought conditions. The native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees know how to cope with your region's climate and soil conditions. They will also attract the most birds and beneficial insects. It's quite probable that migrating birds as well as those just 'passing by' will see your rain garden as an oasis, and drop in for a visit!

Good choices for rain garden plants would include those that like to grow at the edge of a pond: Rose mallow, blue flag iris, cardinal flower, obedient plant, cattails, sedges, tall grasses, New England aster, black-eyed susan, blue sage, blue lobelia, marsh milkweed and turtlehead. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Office for more choices.