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Create a Beneficial Rain Garden: A Mini Wetland Habitat for Birds

Updated on January 11, 2014
grandmapearl profile image

Connie knows how very important natural habitats are to our bird populations. That's why she loves bird-friendly flowers, shrubs and trees.

Beautiful woodland stream.
Beautiful woodland stream. | Source

When the oceans first formed on this planet they held a certain amount of water. Today we still have essentially the same amount of water as then, but as of 2010, humans are using a whopping 60% more than in 1960. In some areas, water is being pumped out of the ground about 35% faster than it is being replaced. Add to this the huge amount of storm water runoff that is the largest source of water pollution we have, and you can see that something major has to be done, and soon.

Beneficial rain gardens have become wildly popular with home gardeners as well as local and state governments, because this type of garden can go a long way toward returning naturally purified clean water to our planetary system.

One example of a rain garden design.
One example of a rain garden design. | Source

What Is A Rain Garden?

Simply put, a rain garden is a depression in your landscape filled with native trees, shrubs, grasses and/or wildflowers. Plant roots soak up rainwater, and the excess percolates slowly through the soil. It is filtered and cleansed on its journey to our natural underground water storage known as aquifers. *

*According to Encarta, the online dictionary, an aquifer is defined as a layer of permeable rock, sand or gravel through which ground water flows, containing enough water to supply wells and springs.

Clogged storm drain.  Yuck!
Clogged storm drain. Yuck! | Source

What Do Rain Gardens Do?

Once upon a time there was grass and forest as far as the eye could see. Then humans began to build. They built houses, garages, condos, paved roads, patios, driveways, parking lots; well, you get the idea. Hard surfaces replaced earth, grass, fields and forests. So where does the water go when it rains? It runs right down your driveway and into the street and storm drains.

And what does this runoff water carry with it? Pollutants, chemicals, garbage, plastic, phosphorus from fertilizers, pesticide residues, antifreeze from vehicles, rust and dust from vehicle brakes, heavy metals and disease-carrying bacteria and viruses from animal waste, and so on.

Now where do those storm drains lead? To the city water treatment facility, streams, lakes, rivers or the ocean.

Removing runoff rainwater from storm drains helps to keep them from being overwhelmed in a drenching rain situation. We’ve all seen the news reports about rescuers having to help stranded motorists whose cars have stalled in deep water. According to the National Weather Service we can expect more and more powerful rain storms. That means more downpours, more street flooding, more pollutants ending up in our water, more motorists and rescuers at risk, and sky-rocketing insurance rates, and costs for cleanup, etc.

As rain falls through the pollutants in the atmosphere, it collects them. These airborne baddies will be automatically filtered through the soil in a rain garden as well.

Lots of pretty flowers in this rain garden.
Lots of pretty flowers in this rain garden. | Source

What Are the Benefits of Planting a Rain Garden?

Did you know that as many as twelve times more birds are present in wetland habitats than in their dry counterparts!

Meet some of the many bug-eating birds in the table below. Lots of beneficial insects and small animals enjoy rain gardens. Even though they are rich in bugs, there is no long-term standing water, so there’s no fear of mosquitoes in a rain garden. Additionally, these gardens are generally maintenance free. Most weeds do not thrive in wet conditions. Yes, a virtually no-weed garden is actually possible!

You may be asking:

Is it really all that helpful? I mean, what can my little rain garden do? And the answer is: PLENTY!

The example I found is for Tennessee, which has an annual average rainfall of 50 inches. Say your roof covers your 1,100 square foot house. If 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, it would collect and filter roughly 18,000 gallons of water in an average rainfall year! That’s just one rain garden and only one downspout.

Wren with bug.
Wren with bug. | Source

Meet some of the many birds that belongs to Nature’s Organic Pest Control Team

Favorite Insect Meals
grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, larvae, moths
beetles, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, stinkbugs, snails
aphids, whitefly, scale, caterpillars, ants, earwigs
larvae, caterpillars, beetles
tree borers, caterpillars, ants and earwigs
spiders and tiny insects
caterpillars, larvae, beetles, grasshoppers
small insects and spiders
various insects living under tree bark
moths, beetles, grasshoppers
beetles, grasshoppers, flying insects
aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars, beetles
caterpillars, aphids, whitefly
larvae, beetles, weevils, borers
grasshoppers, flying and crawling insects
Gorgeous Rain Garden in Harrisburg, Pa.
Gorgeous Rain Garden in Harrisburg, Pa. | Source

Test For Soil Drainage

Dig a hole 6” to 12” deep and 4” in diameter; fill with water and let stand for about an hour to pre-soak your soil; fill the hole back up with water and measure the depth with a ruler; wait an hour and measure again. The water level in the hole should have dropped at least half an inch, if not more, in that time in order to pass the drainage test.

What Do You Need to Make a Rain Garden for Birds?

Basic Requirements of Rain Gardens:

  • The right location. Ten feet away from basement, or 5 feet away from slab; away from your septic field and water well; away from large tree driplines. Rain gardens can be created in sunny or shady spots; just so long as you use the right plants for your particular situation, your bird rain garden will do its job very efficiently.
  • Good drainage. This way the water that normally runs off in a storm will be directed back down into the ground to replenish aquifers. Clay soils work best to make a rain garden because they slow the percolation of water, holding water while allowing it to slowly drain. 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 dry!

If you are unsure of the type of soil you have, complete a soil test, which can usually be done for a small fee through your state's extension service. 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. Rain Garden Size Calculator
  • Overflow capability in extreme rainfall situations. This means a notch in your berm, which is the soil, rocks or sod surrounding your rain garden that holds everything in place.
  • 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 ponds, such as:

Rose mallow, flag iris, cardinal flower, obedient plant, cattails, sedges, tall grasses, and turtlehead.

Excellent How To Video from St Louis County, Minn.

Example of depth of a Rain Garden.
Example of depth of a Rain Garden.
Rain gardens use shallow depressions to collect rain water.
Rain gardens use shallow depressions to collect rain water. | Source
My Rain Garden installed 5 years ago.
My Rain Garden installed 5 years ago. | Source

How to Create a Rain Garden Step by Step

Step 1 Mark out your proposed garden with stakes and string according to the size you have determined. Be sure to check with your local utility companies before digging anywhere on your property. They’ll be glad to come and mark out any pipelines or electric services that you need to avoid. You don’t want to be the cause of a neighborhood blackout!

Step 2 Dig out the area to your desired depth, keeping the ‘floor’ of the rain garden as level as possible. Use a carpenter’s level and a 2”x4” piece of wood to accomplish this, by moving it around the ‘floor’.

Step 3 Fill your depression with amended clay soil or good loam that has passed the drainage test.

Step 4 Construct your berm by building it up to the desired finished height with soil, flat rocks or sod. To make sure your berm is as level as possible, pound a long stake into the center of your rain garden. Measure up the stake 6”, or the desired finished berm height, and attach a string at that mark. Stretch the string out over the berm to find any low or high spots.

Step 5 Make a “V” notch in your berm to provide for water overflow. Locate this so that it will spill over into your lawn and spread out. You can fill this notch with gravel so water can filter through easily.

Step 6 Shop for plants! And pay attention to their size and width at maturity as noted on the plant tags. Also make sure their light requirements are the same as the sunlight you have available in your new garden.

Step 7 Install your plants.

Step 8 Water your new garden thoroughly to give it a good start, and add mulch. Weeding may be necessary occasionally to begin with. After the second year, your plants will fill in and spread, eliminating the need for most weeding.

Step 9 Register your rain garden. Why register it? Rain garden registration sites are able to track the amount of rainfall in your area and calculate how much your garden is absorbing. See Link Below.

Grant Programs for Rain Gardens

All of the States I checked have rain garden grant programs of some sort in place. Each State’s websites also have lists of native plants that do well in different situations. For instance, coastal areas require different plantings than those in the mountains. Additionally, lists of suitable trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers for shady as opposed to sunny areas are also helpful. Lots of Universities had information, helpful videos and many other resources for building rain gardens, too.

Check with your State’s Department of Environment and Conservation to see if they have funds and/or information available to help in your rain garden building efforts.

Remember that with a rain garden you will have no mosquitoes, no maintenance, no mowing, no weeding, and no regular watering. What you will have is the enjoyment of a beautiful yet practical garden filled with a large variety of beneficial insects, butterflies, and of course, birds that will visit and thrive. And best of all, know that you had a hand in restoring natural habitat balance, not to mention clean water, to our planet!

Sources: New York State Dept. Of Environment and Conservation; Tennessee Dept. Of Environment and Conservation; Wikipedia and Connie Smith (a/k/a Grandma Pearl)

Do You Have a Rain Garden?

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Help restore our clean water.
Help restore our clean water.

Is a Rain Garden in Your Future?

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    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      pstraubie, I'm so glad to see you! Thanks for the supportive comments. I thoroughly enjoy my rain garden, and so do my birds and butterflies and insects. To me it looks like a cottage garden, but it works very well when it rains.

      If you install a rain garden, I would love to see pictures!

      Thank you for the votes and for the loving Angels.


    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      6 years ago from sunny Florida

      How awesome this is. What a wonderful idea. What a lovely gift to give the birdies...I will need to explore this idea. Thanks for all of the detail and the benefits to humans of a rain garden.

      Voted up++++ Sending you many Angels this morning.

      Bookmarking to refer to also. :) ps

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      pagesvoice, So nice to see you neighbor! Isn't it amazing how wildlife knows when storms are approaching and they need to fill up beforehand?! If my birds are very busy at the feeders as they were yesterday, a storm will arrive within 12 to 24 hours. Sure enough, this morning I had to clear away about 3" of slushy snow from the bird feeders so they could have access to the seeds!

      This is indeed a fabulous area in which to live. The geology, waterways, plants, animals and birds never cease to amaze and surprise me. There is such diversity here, and that is certainly a good thing.

      I thank you so much for the votes, and your wonderfully supportive and interesting comments. You have made my day!


    • pagesvoice profile image

      Dennis L. Page 

      6 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

      Voted up, awesome, interesting, useful and beautiful. I should have known that my Southern Tier neighbor would have vast knowledge on a rain garden and providing a safe habitat for birds.

      I love the pictures and especially the one of your own rain garden. As pointed out in the article, I too have never been bothered by mosquitoes around the garden.

      I count my blessings everyday regarding the area we live in. Last night, for instance, the deer and squirrels were busy nibbling on peanuts, corn and seed in anticipation of the sleet, snow and ice storm.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Dear Eddy, I'm so glad you enjoyed this article. You're right--nature is my passion and motivation--my anchor. Your comment shows me that I am on the right track in getting my message across. Thank you so much, my friend, for your loyal support and excellent comments. You always brighten my day, whether with your amazing poetry, your visits and comments or just our connection, though we are so very far apart "as the crow flies"! Your votes and share are so very much appreciated. Have a beautiful day!


    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      As always a wonderful share Pearl.I love your hubs, and your unconditional love for nature is obvious in each and every hub you publish. I vote up,across and share.


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Mary, I'm so glad you enjoyed this article, and that you are interested in creating a rain garden. You won't be sorry! The birds, butterflies and beneficial bugs will be flocking to your new garden. Your support and wonderful comments and votes are most appreciated, as are you my friend!


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Deb, your wonderful comments mean so much! Hopefully we can get the word out to many more about the great importance of these rain gardens. Clean water and non-toxic environments are essential to us all, as you well know. I totally appreciate your supportive comments, and you my friend!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      A superb idea that commands a great deal of respect. Were itnot for these wonderful little oases, we'd have a lot less water. Thanks, Connie, for a well written piece and a lot of knowhow, to help people get more bank for the buck! Awesome and up.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      I really want an amazing button! Most people have flower gardens or areas set aside for flowers, why not make them rain gardens? This is an amazing hub and I'm marking it to come back when I'm ready to revamp my garden.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Carol! I'm so glad you enjoyed this article. And thank you very much for your great comments. Even though your area isn't ideal for this type of garden, it was super of you to share and pin. It's a great way to reach a lot more people, and for that I am very grateful to you! Always a joy when you stop by.


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Billy, thank you so much for your supportive comments. I truly hope you do have a chance to install a rain garden. It is well worth the effort for sure. I have totally enjoyed mine--it's carefree and filled with beneficial bugs. The hummers enjoy it as well as juncos and finches.

      Enjoy your day off, my friend!


    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      I loved this hub and wish we lived in a wet climate. ALas it is so dry here. You did such an amazing job explaining and instructing. Voting up, sharing and pinning...The photos are lovely

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestions, Pearl! As our garden plans continue to grow, I can see this being done in a year or so. Saving this excellent primer for future use. Thank you and have a great weekend.


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