As a newcomer to coastal Florida in the early 1980s, I watched with amazement as the streets of the low-lying barrier island where I lived filled with swift-running water every time it rained. I also remember “old-timers” telling me ruefully, “It wasn’t like this in the ’50s. Now there’s too much concrete. The water’s got no place to go.”

Rocly rain garden

Rain gardens help filter runoff, protecting local water resources.

Photo Credit: ©John Gishnock III, courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Building rain garden

Tell your family and friends about your rain garden plans – they might chip in to help save Mother Earth.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Small rain garden

This mature rain garden may be small, but it works perfectly.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

While the village fixed the sewers and drains to accommodate the runoff, it also added even more concrete with all the new developments that sprung up. Local property owners elevated their lots and houses to keep them from being flooded during hurricanes. Today, storm water runoff – polluted with pesticides, fertilizer, gasoline, oil and other chemicals – continues to flow into the storm drains and out into the ocean, harming marine life. And it’s not just happening in Florida – this scenario is repeated all over the country in urban areas where there’s simply not enough green space.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the enormity of fixing our environmental problems, but if everyone did even a little something, it would go a long way toward making the world a healthier place to live. One tiny thing that each of us who has access to a small plot of land can do is plant a rain garden.

I’d never heard of rain gardens when I lived in Florida – one of the rainiest states in the country. But apparently this gardening phenomenon had already started on the East Coast back in the 1980s, and the idea’s now spread nationwide.

The concept of a rain garden is simple enough: The idea is to take a section of your yard and create a shallow, depressed area where you channel the runoff from your house. Adding native plants helps slow down the water so it can be absorbed. Not only does a rain garden diminish the amount of pollutants entering fresh water sources, it helps recharge groundwater. A garden this simple means you can feel good about helping the planet, as well as get all the benefits of a beautiful space that attracts birds, butterflies and dragonflies.

If the idea of protecting our fresh water inspires you, then you’re ready to start! Just follow this basic guide to building your own rain garden:

  1. Pick a spot for your garden that’s at least 10-15 feet from your house, preferably in full sun. (It also helps to have a gentle slope.) Make sure you don’t put your rain garden over a septic tank or so close to your house that the water seeps in and undermines your foundation.
  2. Outline the shape you want your rain garden to have with rope, twine or a hose. (A kidney, crescent or other curved shape is considered more aesthetically pleasing than a strict square or rectangle – but those work, too). A 100- to 300-square-foot rain garden should work well for most suburban houses and their storm water runoff.
  3. Dig a shallow depression about 4-8 inches deeper than your normal soil level. If your yard slopes severely, you’ll need to level out your rain garden by building up the downslope end with soil. (A berm a few inches high along the sides and lower edge of the rain garden will help catch water.) And don’t forget to make sure the longest side of your rain garden is perpendicular to the slope. Finally, build the garden wide enough to create a pleasing arrangement of plants.
  4. Direct your downspout or sump pump outlet to channel the runoff toward the rain garden. (You may have to dig a shallow channel or route the water through PVC pipes to get it to flow to the area.)
  5. Pick native perennials or moisture-loving shrubs and trees that are recommended by your garden center or Extension agent for your region. (The plants you can use will vary with your soil type, so be sure to tell your garden center expert whether you’ve got well-draining sandy soil or water-holding clay soil.)

As you choose your plants, don’t forget to exercise your creativity. Remember, it’s not called a “rain garden” for nothing – the plants there will get more water than other areas of your yard, so you can incorporate plants you might not normally choose. And the rain garden’s small space offers a great opportunity to try new color schemes, textures and designs – all while doing your little part to help Mother Earth.