How to Build a Rain Garden for Catching Rainwater

Updated on May 7, 2019
Anthony Altorenna profile image

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, the kitchen, the garden and out fishing. Many of his projects are featured in his yard.

A patch of thirsty ferns
A patch of thirsty ferns | Source

A Natural Filter for Stormwater Runoff

A well-designed rain garden is an organic and low-tech method for controlling the runoff from rainstorms and snowmelt. Runoff from rooftops, driveways, patios and other nonporous surfaces is channeled and directed away from buildings and towards a low-lying section of the yard. As the rainwater and snowmelt runoff travels across the lawn and hardscape, fertilizers and pollutants are washed into the rain garden's natural filtration and cleansing system.

Dug into a shallow bowl shape, the rain garden retains stormwater run-off and helps to control soil erosion. The sunken planting beds capture the run-off and hydrate the landscape plants, and any excess water filters down through the soil. The organic cleansing action helps to remove salts and chemical residues before the runoff seeps deep below the surface into the underground aquifers.

Rain gardens are easy to maintain and can attract birds, butterflies, toads and other wildlife into the backyard. The above photo was taken in early summer and highlights the native ferns. Other perennials including Brown-Eyed Susan and Ajuga Bugle plants add colorful blooms, while an Inkberry shrub and a dwarf conifer provide texture and visual interest during the winter season.

A winter view
A winter view | Source

Why Assessing Location Is Important

Our property is situated on a hillside, and we get a lot of storm water runoff and snowmelt from the surrounding higher elevations and from the rooftop of our home. The photo (above) was taken in late winter, after this year's snowmelt is gone but before the perennial plants have awoken from their winter slumber.

Located in the lowest section of the backyard, we dug into the bottom of the sloping lawn and directly in front of a berm that forms one side of our little pond. We buried a plastic drain pipe under the lawn and connected the other end of the pipe to the primary downspout for delivering runoff from the roof. A gentle swale sculpted into the lawn helps to steer more of the water runoff from rainstorms and snowmelt away from the house and into the planting bed.

Note: The planting bed at the bottom of the sloped yard is separated from the pond by a berm of soil and rock. Do not let the water runoff drain into your koi pond!


Creating Boundaries

We used pieces of fieldstone and rock to create a border and to define the bed's borders and edges. The fieldstone also helps to disguise and protect the plastic drain pipe from the roof gutters. A few strategically placed rocks in front of the drain pipe opening helps to diffuse the rushing water as it travels downhill from the roof and into the sunken garden. We do not apply any mulch, which would likely wash away from the drainpipe area and into the basin of the planting bed. Instead, a ground cover of Ajuga Bugle plants helps to control weeds.

Between rainstorms, the opening to the drain pipe and its surrounding rock cave is a favorite hangout for a large toad. Other welcomed visitors include insects, wood frogs, chipmunks, garter snakes and an occasional box turtle.

Our rain garden fits well into our landscape, is simple to maintain, looks good and is very effective at controlling large volumes of runoff from the roof and the sloped yard. Planted primarily with native Christmas ferns and Cinnamon ferns, the plants help to control soil erosion on our hillside and act as a natural filter. The captured stormwater runoff soaks the soil and provides plenty of moisture for the ferns before the excess water seeps down into the ground. The water runoff is utilized by the plants rather than washing away into a storm drain.

Even after a significant rainstorm, the planting bed dries out within a day and does not leave any standing water. No standing water means there's no place for mosquitos to breed!

Tips for Creating a Rain Garden

  • Select a low-lying area or natural depression. Consider using an area that puddles naturally after a rainstorm or snowmelt.
  • Strategically locate an area near a downspout or at the bottom of a natural slope, but position the planting bed at least 10 feet away from the house foundation and other buildings.
  • Do not select a site that is over the septic tank or leeching field.
  • Avoid digging in areas near underground utilities including gas, electrical and water lines. If in doubt, check your local listings for the "Call Before You Dig" contact information.
  • Use hardy native plants that are suitable for planting in both wet and dry conditions. Add a few non-native plants for seasonal variety of height, foliage, texture and blooms. Avoid planting exotic and invasive species.
  • Until the plants become established, weed the planting bed often to remove the undesirable weeds. The established and matured perennials will crowd out the weeds, reducing the long-term maintenance needed to keep the rain garden looking good.

Rain Garden at the University of Nebraska

The Benefits of Creating a Rain Garden

  • Controlling storm water runoff and reducing soil erosion
  • Reducing the amount of runoff that enters the storm drains and municipal water treatment systems
  • Protecting rivers and stream from property runoff that contains fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical pollutants
  • Filters storm water runoff while replenishing groundwater and aquifer reserves
  • Attracts birds, butterflies and other wildlife
  • Reduces lawn and gardening maintenance

Do Rain Gardens Attract Mosquitoes?

A common misconception about rain gardens: they are not swampy bogs. A well-placed and properly planted area controls and utilizes the flow of stormwater, however, a well-designed sunken garden is not a bog and it does not stay wet all of the time (no standing water means no mosquitoes). Planted with native perennials, a typical rain garden drains well and dries out within a day or so, filtering the runoff before it enters into the groundwater system.

A Common Misconception

Rain gardens do not attract mosquitoes!

Consider a Rain Barrel

Rain barrels are another option for controlling stormwater runoff. We use a rain barrel to collect runoff from the roof in another area of our yard. Unlike a rain garden that uses the trapped water immediately to hydrate thirsty plants, a rain barrel collects and stores the rainwater for future use. Runoff from the roof is channeled through the gutter and downspout to an inflow point at the top of the barrel. When the barrel is full, an overflow value allows the excess water to escape. A spigot at the bottom of the rain barrel connects to a garden hose, making it easy to use the rainwater when and where it is needed, such as watering container plantings throughout the growing season.

Most rain barrels are essentially large plastic containers. Manufactured kits are easy to install, and are available in a variety of styles ranging from basic utilitarian to decorator models. Size and capacity also vary; 50 to 75-gallon storage capacity rain barrels are commonly available. If more watering capacity is needed, some models can be hooked together through a simple manifold system that delivers rainwater to each of connected barrels.

Do You Have a Rain Garden?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Anthony Altorenna

How Do You Control Rainwater in Your Garden?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • John Dove profile image

      John Dove 

      2 years ago

      Hello Anthony--

      Thank you for you rain garden article. I too have a very small rain garden, designed to collect rainwater flowing down a hardscape walkway at the side of our house. Someday I plan to write a Hub about my experience.

      Thanks again for spreading the word about rain garders.

    • JoanieMRuppel54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 

      6 years ago from Keller, Texas

      I have a rain barrel - I swear my water bill is cheaper this spring and we have had less rain than normal.

    • Anthony Altorenna profile imageAUTHOR

      Anthony Altorenna 

      6 years ago from Connecticut

      @Lady Lorelei: Hi, and thank you for you comment. The water runoff does not actually run into the pond. The rain garden is located in front of the pond, and is separated by a berm. Rain water flows downhill into the rain garden, but cannot enter the pond.Rainwater runoff from the yard can contain fertilizer and pesticides, and should not be allowed to enter a fish pond.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      7 years ago from Canada

      I would have never thought of creating a pond with the run off water from our roof. What a fantastic idea. Now to talk hubby into it.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      We don't get a lot of rain here in Southern California, but when we do it makes sense to charge the ground water instead of letting it run off.

    • GardenIdeasHub LM profile image

      GardenIdeasHub LM 

      7 years ago

      Your tips about creating a rain garden are really great!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I've been chatting recently with Pastiche about doing a rain garden in my back yard. I've got a schedule to have two large water oaks brought down and once that is complete, I will look seriously to this project. Good to know that they don't attract mosquitoes!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      If I ever have a yard again, I think I must have a rain garden, I love the idea behind it and you do it so well!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image


      8 years ago

      We're on a slight grade and probably don't have room for a rain garden. I would love to get one or two of those barrels when we have our new gutters installed.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      8 years ago from Colorado

      Congrats on your feature (gardening monsterboard). Wish I had a need for a true rain garden. My part of Colorado gets less than 9 inches of rain per year. However, I do have a few rain and snow melt associated features. I have a couple of berms set up to create a temporary little pond during the time of year when water flows down the mountain. I do have a water catchment system set up to channel rain off of my roof into an underground cistern. Enjoyed seeing what you have done with your rain garden. I can tell it was thoughtfully and beautifully designed and constructed.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 

      8 years ago

      Interesting idea! I collect rainwater from my roof in rain barrels, for use in my garden. But I also have runoff around the house from snowmelt in the spring, which I might be able to turn into a rain garden. Thanks!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Enviable work and a great showcase for a 'How to' page! I have to share this with friends who would be interested in this type of work for a garden! Enjoyed my visit too! :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great tip for conserving water, I love the idea of having a rain garden.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 

      8 years ago

      Looks like that garden really makes your yard a pleasant place to be, as well as controlling water runoff!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)