From Puddle to Rain Garden; Ditch to Dry Creek

I'm making a rain garden and dry creek bed to collect, filter, absorb and divert all of the runoff that had been flooding and eroding my backyard, and wanted to share how I'm turning a muddy and weedy ditch in the middle of my garden into something truly magical. This is going to be one heck of a garden makeover.

First, here's what's wrong with my existing rain garden and how I will fix it. If you're not quite happy with your own garden's design, maybe this will help you fix yours as well.

After a storm
First of all, the dry creek is almost a straight shot from one corner of the garden right to the corner in the back where excess water drains away. I'm pretty sure it's all bad feng shui, but it also leads to the next problem - that the water itself drains away too fast. So that the garden can absorb the runoff, I'll have to slow things down.

The site of the rain garden, as seen from the lawn.
The garden is also visually chaotic. I should cut myself some slack since the groundcovers and other plants haven't yet had a chance to fill in, but the eye just bounces around distractedly, without a clear focal point or place for the eye to rest. All of the green plants are more soothing than a bunch of random colorful ones, but those caladiums are distracting as squirrels to a hyperactive puppy.

I have all of the right pieces to this puzzle, but that puzzle has been taken apart and dumped on the floor. Now all I have to do is put everything together.

My Solution

To solve all three problems, I'm breaking it all up. Instead of letting the water run straight down a glorified shallow ditch, I'm dividing it into two sections with their own functions: A proper rain garden that collects, absorbs and filters the water; and a dry creek bed to divert and drain the excess water so that my backyard doesn't flood.

Since many of my plants are from the Southern Living Plant Collection, I've teamed up with them to finish the garden off with some really nice shrubs, perennials and groundcovers. So far I'm using a whole lot of Mahonia 'Soft Caress'Carex 'Everillo' and Nandina 'Lemon-Lime' in my garden and will be transplanting them here, but I'll also get to showcase some other new plants in their collection.

Though unplanted, you can at least see the many Carex 'Everillo' that I will be using in the rain garden.
The Rain Garden
There are many definitions of a rain garden, and some definitions are pretty unrealistic. Some demand that it must be 100-300 square feet or have only native plants; or that you first dig a deep hole and fill it with organic matter - but don't get intimidated. The purpose of a rain garden is to collect, absorb and filter runoff, and to do that, it just needs to be a shallow depression with plants that can handle both drought and wet soil.

Here's what I'm doing for my own rain garden. When runoff seeps out of my clay-ey lawn, it will pour into a 'marsh' of vivid neon green Carex 'Everillo' that will soak up water like a grassy sponge. I've built up berms of topsoil and plantings to collect the water, and any excess will pass through a gap into the dry creek bed.

This rain garden will give the eye a place to rest and become a focal point that can be seen from all sides of the backyard, like a clearing or pond in the forest. I've seen some rain gardens that have so much going on visually that they almost look weedy! That's how mine looks at the moment... plus, it has real weeds.

You can also expect to see some other plants with grassy or strappy foliage used here, particularly Agapanthus. To add seasonal interest with short-lived and ephemeral blooms, you might see some rain lilies, spider lilies and hurricane lilies mixed in.

It might not be finished, but the rocks make such a difference!
The Dry Creek Bed
While the marshy rain garden's job was to collect, absorb and filter the runoff, the dry creek bed is supposed to quickly whisk away any of the excess before it floods the rest of the garden. In my case, it's also supposed to look like an awesome jungle stream... and as of right now, it does not.

Since rocks are almost nonexistent around here, I originally decided against using them for the sake of authenticity. But that's stupid and here's why. Rocky streams aren't natural in Northeast Florida, but neither are concrete, asphalt, houses and non-native plants. If you're going all native in your garden, I respect and applaud you for that. But I like to mix natives with bromeliads, gingers and palms. So what difference do a few rocks make, other than prevent erosion and keep weeds at bay? Besides, I'd rather have my son playing in a gravel-lined stream than a muddy ditch.

The choice was clear.

Rocks it was! I took my son to Stone Plus and he helped me pick out a bunch of flat fieldstones, gravel and rocks for our playground - er, dry creek bed. Here are some things to keep in mind if you're doing this yourself: Use rounded rocks, use rocks and gravel of similar hues, scatter them naturally, and make them look as if they belong there. In other words, make it look natural! I also chose flat stones to that they can double as stepping stones.

Have any of you readers had success or problems in creating a rain garden? I'd love to hear about it! I'll keep you posted with lots of tips and instructions as I rework my rain garden and dry creek bed in the coming months. This will be a fun 'before and after' project and you'll get to see some new and exciting plants from the Southern Living Plant Collection in action too.

1 comment:

  1. Using your principle of depressing the portion of the garden where the rainwater tend to flow, we were able to address the puddle in some areas where they remain stagnant after it rains. We then put river Rock in seven different colors along the water path towards the drain. We exaggerated the drain by putting more stones to look like a stream. It looks good, at least to us and it solved the drainage problem.


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