5 rain garden ideas for your rainwater drainage

Rain gardens are a way to keep rainwater from running off your garden while making it more beautiful. With a little planning, you can create a beautiful, low-maintenance rain garden that keeps the water in your yard where your plants can use it—rather than running off and washing fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, pollutants, and animal waste into the storm drain and local streams and ponds.

Rain garden design tips

Most residential rain gardens are fairly compact, typically ranging in size from 60 square feet to 180 square feet. The water gardens can be of any shape and size, including popular designs such as a straight rectangular flower bed, a circle of flowers, or a crescent-shaped garden along a slope.

The standard way to size a rain garden is to make it 30% the size of the surface it drains into. Check out the nearby rooftop, driveway, or sidewalk that sheds water during storms. (Also, be aware of gutters and garden drains.) If your roof is 1,000 square feet, make your rain garden 300 square feet to collect the runoff.

Plant flowers and shrubs that thrive best in dry conditions around the edges of your rain garden, and water-loving plants in the center that stay wet the longest when your rain garden drains.

The plants below should thrive in hardiness zones four through eight and remain healthy in full sun to part shade unless otherwise noted.

Design ideas for rain gardens

1. The minimalist

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Create a minimalist rain garden look with mulch.

Get the look:

You don’t need an elaborate planting scheme for a rain garden. If you don’t like fussy flowers, you can create a simple, modern-looking rain garden using rocks, mulch, and native grasses and sedges like this garden with contrasting squares.

Pair a gold shimmering sedge like round hilly Evergold (or tussock sedge if you prefer a more upright look) with soft-edged deep green Pennsylvania sedge, green and red switchgrass, or spiky Appalachian sedge, leaving the wet centers open with light ones round stones and contrasting mulch. Avoid stained mulch if possible and be aware that the open stone center will require weeding (perhaps a lot of weeding).

2. Go green

Two images of green spider plant and grass.

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Mix and match your greenery.

Get the look:

Do you have a shady, damp location? Plant short ferns and shade-tolerant grasses to add greenery to the site and slow water dilution, like in this street garden in Portland, Oregon. You can include a few low shrubs like Clethra alnifolia “hummingbird” or Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’, both of which are up to three feet tall (so they don’t block drivers’ views) and feature delicate white midsummer blooms and fall colors.

You can also plant spring bulbs such as daffodils or irises between the grasses. Their foliage will die back in mid-summer when the grasses grow tall.

3. Large bright flowers for birds and bees

Two closeups of coneflower and wheatgrass.

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Add a pop of color with the purple sun hat.

Get the look:

Rain gardens can be the perfect spot for large, bright summer flowers, like these rain gardens in Canada, Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Pair your summer flowers with green grasses and sedges for the deepest, wettest areas, and you’ll have a bright, beautiful garden from mid-summer through fall. Bonus: Butterflies, bees, and pollinators love these flowers—and birds love the seed pods, so don’t cut the flowers off when they’re blooming! Let them feed our feathered friends.

If possible, try to buy native species rather than branded varieties of flowering plants. The branded plants have typically been bred to have different colors, petals or shapes than the native species and are less attractive to pollinators.

For the simplest pollinator-friendly garden with big blooms, pair black-eyed susans with purple coneflower flowers, like in this Watershed Institute garden.

4. The Big Three

Two closeups of daisies and white flowers.

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Fill up your perennials with some Black Eyed Susans.

Get the look:

Sometimes just a few large plants are enough to make a garden spectacular. Rain Dog Designs in Seattle created a stunning rain garden consisting of just three main plants: Russian sage, black-eyed susan, and autumn delight sedum, with pebbles and water-loving grass for the wetter center. This Cincinnati rain garden takes the same Fall Delight sedum and combines it with purple sunflower flowers and tall sorghastrum grass for a different, stunning look.

5. Purple Rain

Purple flowers and a butterfly

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Add beautiful purple plants to your rain garden.

Get the look:

This garden will not cause you any worries or pain, on the contrary, it will spice up your usual greenery with a touch of purple flowers and foliage.

Combine daisy-like purple sunflowers with spikes of fuchsia star and frothy lavender Russian sage and tall blue-purple blue verbena for summer blooms, with yellow-centered purple New England asters to keep the color into fall. Switchgrass rounds out the humid center with purplish-red flower spikes in spring that turn yellow in fall, while grape gum-purple beautyberry bushes and tall purple-leaved “black lace” elder shrubs bear berries that feed birds.

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