What Is a Rain Garden and How Do They Help Fight Pollution?

If you’re committed to living a toxin-free life filled with giving back to the planet, a rain garden might be worth your attention. A rain garden is a garden of native plants settled in a depression in the earth. They regularly soak up and hold rainwater runoff from roofs, lawns and other overflow circumstances.

Not only do rain gardens contribute to the natural ecosystem of a community just like any plant or garden, but they’re also beneficial to the environment and help to fight water pollution.

Rain gardens are aesthetically pleasing, with their lush local plants and surrounding pond areas, and are similar to perennial gardens, although they serve specific purposes within local ecosystems and can work to uplift the environment in their own unique ways.

Looking to contribute to your local ecosystem in a positive way by fostering local plant and animal life? Want to take the initiative in keeping the water in your area clean? Rain gardens are a perfect way to do your part, all while making your yard even more beautiful and lush.

Focus on Local Plant Life

One of the hallmarks of rain garden construction is the use of native plant life to create a natural, appropriate ecosystem that gives back and functions well within the local environment.

The plants you choose will depend on where you live, which is part of what makes rain gardens so diverse. While there may be some overlap across North America, each rain garden is unique to the climate in which it exists.

Rain gardens present a unique opportunity to create a mix of local flora and fauna in their own coexisting environment. Gardens are often planted for human utilization, which has its own environmental benefits, but rain gardens exist primarily for the earth and the ecosystem.

Beyond simply selecting local plant life, it’s important to find plants that thrive in a wet, pond-like environment. A rain garden is not a pond, but the collection of rainwater and runoff saturates the environment within the garden. Plenty of plants thrive in wet environments, and lots of those plants work well in close proximity to one another.

The plants you choose can depend on your own local area and the native plant life there, as well as your functional and aesthetic preferences. Many people enjoy a healthy mix of many plants for both a diverse functional environment and a beautiful garden fixture.

Some popular rain garden plant selections include:

  • Cardinal Flowers
  • Black-Eyed Susans
  • Swamp Milkweed
  • Swamp Mallow
  • Turtlehead
  • Sedges
  • Bluestar
  • Summersweet

Obviously, your choices will depend on your area, but looking at your options and choosing your favorite plants is all part of the fun of this ecologically beneficial endeavor.

Working with the Earth’s Natural Features

Building a rain garden, unlike many other landscaping structures, works with the natural features already embedded into the earth’s surface. Rain gardens are built at low spots in the ground that naturally collect rain and water runoff, and can even use natural depressions that are already there. If there isn’t a clear depression, that’s totally okay. You can dig one to meet your rain gardening needs.

A depression in the earth is essentially a wide hole that can host plants and collect water. Depressions can be dug from scratch or you can widen or deepen a natural ditch that is already there [1]. The important part is that rain gardens can be built with the earth’s own shapes and materials.

So many landscaping and gardening projects require external materials that aren’t naturally present in a planting environment. Even regular gardens often involve wood, metal and plastic in various building techniques so the plants present there can grow better, as they’re supported by external assistance.

However, rain gardens don’t require that same kind of assistance, because the plant life and the functions of those plants are different from most landscaping structures, including traditional gardens.

The materials that are needed to build and maintain a rain garden are centered around the earth and its natural state and materials. The development of a rain garden involves the use of soil, plant life and natural water. When required, it’s about manipulating the configuration of the earth, not using the earth as a template for something that doesn’t belong there.

Rain gardens work as a part of the local ecosystem, which is why they’re built upon natural elements.

Water Collection

Runoff water is water that collects on various surfaces when there is too much precipitation for the land to absorb it after a storm or flood. This water usually flows in both natural and unnatural environments, running towards creeks, streams and other bodies of water.

However, it can get there by way of streets, pavement and lawns — all of which are manmade environments filled with pollutants. Although runoff is a natural process, human presence and construction sometimes interrupts the flow of water to its destination, often causing it to collect pollutants and pool up. Runoff water can also pool up on its own depending on the formations of the earth.

Since rain gardens are situated in depressions of the ground, they’re located perfectly to collect runoff water, which is especially helpful considering the way that modern environments impact natural water that gets circulated back into the water cycle. When runoff water runs through various environments, it can become polluted and damage other parts of the ecosystem.

Rain gardens don’t just collect this polluted water — they naturally filter and purify it so it can rejoin the ecosystem without causing harm.

Water Filtration

When water runs off surfaces like roofs and streets, it has the potential to collect pollutants and chemicals that aren’t beneficial to the environment. This can in fact be actively harmful to other plant life and animals that rely on a clean ecosystem for survival.

Chemicals, oils, dirt, and bacteria all have different impacts. And even when they’re not inherently harmful, displacement of natural debris or bacteria alone could trouble an ecosystem [2]. Pollutants carried by stormwater runoff account for 70% of all water pollution, which makes sense, as water interaction with human environments often pollutes that water.

The beauty of rain gardens is that they are ecosystems in their own right, designed not to succumb to this issue but in fact to help rectify it. The local vegetation within these rain gardens works to naturally filter harmful chemicals and pollutants out of the local water supply so that water can percolate into the soil, recharging groundwater aquifers.

This means that the water is filtered through these plants and returns to the ground cleaner and fresher than before. This is also a natural process facilitated by the plants. Simply having the rain garden in place allows it to perform this task without much human intervention.

Although rain gardens do require some human interaction and upkeep just like a regular garden, it’s not nearly as intense as the requirements posed by something like a vegetable or flower garden [3]. This fixture is a much more natural and ecologically focused project.

Low Resource Consumption

Rain gardens thrive on the consumption of rainwater. Since rain gardens are so natural and work as a part of the local ecosystem with their use of local flora and fauna, they don’t require many of the resources required to maintain lawns, elaborate shrubs, gardens, or other landscaping fixtures that you may have experience with.

Since rain gardens are specifically designed to adapt to their local environments, they’ll naturally thrive in the conditions of their ecosystem, adapting to elements like weather, water provisions and humidity with ease. This is one of the reasons why using local plant life is so important in building a rain garden. Local plants thrive in their environment naturally, as they’ve evolved specifically for health and longevity within their environment.

Especially since rain gardens are situated in depressions and low points in the ground, they are designed to consume large quantities of water when it rains. Unless you have an abnormally dry season, you may not need to water your rain garden at all. Rain gardens are natural fixtures, designed to add to their surrounding environment rather than take from it. While they require things like healthy soil in order to get started, they are much better at self-maintenance than fixtures featuring non-native plants.

Rain gardens thrive by performing their designated purpose. This makes for the perfect setup for contributing to the natural ecosystem and helping to fight pollution with the resources already available in the surrounding environment.

Standing Water Removal

With all the talk of damp, pond-like environments and precipitation, it’s natural to wonder whether excess rainwater will create standing water or even a pond situation in your yard. Rest assured that rain gardens are designed to remove any and all standing water within their system. Drainage and filtration are part of the primary ways that rain gardens function, so even an excess influx of water will eventually filter through the rain garden.

Typically, rain gardens won’t keep their water contents for more than 48 hours. Even if the water from a storm or flood sits in a pond-like state for a short while, it will eventually filter through. This also won’t damage the plants or the garden itself, as rain gardens are designed for this exact purpose. In fact, water excesses can facilitate situations where rain gardens prove particularly useful.

In large storms or situations where runoff is high, much of that water would normally collect pollution and rush back into the natural water cycle, introducing new pollutants into the natural environment at a high rate. However, when that water is introduced to the rain garden, it sits in wait to be filtered back into the environment much cleaner and healthier than before. Even as it sits waiting for its turn to be filtered, the pollutants don’t enter the environment through the water cycle.

Standing water doesn’t remain for long — it simply waits to get filtered through. Using this process, rain gardens are able to keep pollutants from the water cycle for longer and filter more water so that it is cleaner and fresher upon its return.

Sheltering Wildlife

Since rain gardens are species-specific to the ecosystems in which they exist, they also provide shelter for local wildlife to seek refuge. This can be another great ecological element of your rain garden, as some of the same developments that cause water pollution have also caused many local species of animals to lose the safety and seclusion of their traditional homes.

If this is a particular detail on your radar, you can design your rain garden with the specific intention of attracting wildlife. This involves planting specific plants that coincide with local species’ habitats so that they can use your rain garden as shelter. While it may be a bit small, it’s still an opportunity to provide a safe space.

This can also add beauty to the rain garden by using pollinating flowers to attract bees and plants like hemp agrimony to attract certain species of butterfly [4]. Plenty of other native plants can attract local birds or other creatures to your rain garden, though the specifics will depend on your local area.

Of course, this won’t impact your rain garden’s ability to function and perform its given purpose of water filtration. It is simply an addition to the many ways that rain gardens benefit local ecosystems.

The Bottom Line

Rain gardens are unlike so many other landscaping fixtures or garden setups. While they have the potential to be a natural, beautiful addition to your yard or outdoor space, they also offer so many environmental benefits. In addition to sheltering wildlife and fostering local plant species, they also collect, clean and filter runoff water naturally in order to remove pollutants from the water cycle.

Humans have caused a lot of damage to water tables and local ecosystems by polluting the planet. While it’s not any single person’s “job” to fix that damage, we can all contribute in our own way to building a cleaner and greener planet.

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