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Prairie Stream Rain Garden
by Caleb Melchior - January 2013

Rain gardens provide all the benefits of a water-wise garden, plus they help reduce stormwater runoff. Here’s how to plan and plant a rain garden.

Pollinators thrive on the pale pink blossoms of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), increasing the environmental benefits of your rain garden.

Perennial sunflower (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’) flower heavily throughout the  summer and thrive in wet areas.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) thrives in damp conditions and its autumn foliage drops to reveal fantastic magenta fruit.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) bring brilliant color to damp spots in the waning days of autumn.

With water becoming an increasingly debated resource, gardeners and homeowners are beginning to think more strategically about their use of water in landscapes. In addition to reducing water use by avoiding high-consumption elements, smart gardeners maximize the use of water their gardens receive naturally. In other words, they plan for rain.

Rain gardens, also known as bio-retention areas, imitate the cleansing aspects of natural water systems. Ground is molded to direct water in certain directions where it is filtered through water-loving plants before soaking into the ground, rather than running off into city sewers. Benefits of a rain garden include filtering water before it goes into the storm drains and reducing stormwater burden on municipal sewer systems. In addition, rain gardens provide benefits typical of diverse gardens: habitat and food for insects, birds and other animals, aesthetic benefits and environmental benefits. Municipalities are implementing rain gardens as part of municipal stormwater plans. Home gardeners can utilize them as an opportunity to experiment with a new palette of water-loving plants.

Creating a Rain Garden

Rain gardens typically have two parts: a swale or ditch where water collects and a basin, which is a large, shallow, bowl-shaped area that stops water and allows it to soak into the ground. Swales usually begin at downspouts or edges of pavement. The basin should be located at a low spot where water naturally collects. To avoid damage to foundations, the basin should not be directly adjacent to a building but preferably at least 10 feet away. The size (both width and depth) of the basin is determined by the amount of water the basin is intended to collect. To prevent insects from breeding, following typical storms, water should not remain for more than 24 hours. If you’re determined to be exact about the size of your rain garden, consult your local extension office or another gardening expert. There are also numerous online resources available for help planning and calculating the size of your rain garden.

Rain Garden Plants

When choosing how to plant your rain garden, look to plants that naturally grow in wet areas. Depending on the frequency and amount of water your rain garden receives, species may herald from wetlands, stream sides or ponds. For this plan, I chose plants native to wet meadows of Europe, Asia and America. These plants thrive in sunny conditions, but will tolerate some afternoon shade. The diversity of colors and sizes provides interest throughout the year. Overall, implementing this rain garden would give the feeling of walking along a prairie creek.

Prairie Rain Garden Plants: 

A: New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae formerly Aster novae-angliae
B: Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
C: Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata ‘Cinderella’) 
D: Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
E: Perennial sunflower (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’)
F: Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
G: American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

From State-by-State Gardening January/February 2013. Photos by Caleb Melchior.


Caleb Melchior has extensive experience with growing perennials after working at a specialty perennial nursery, Sugar Creek Gardens, in Kirkwood, Mo. He is currently studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Kansas State University.


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