Building a beautiful backyard: Rain gardens can add natural beauty while being sustainable

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Pacific Northwest gardeners can plan ahead and add both beauty and sustainability to their backyard with the addition of a rain garden before precipitation rolls in this fall. 

Designed as an efficient way to clean polluted stormwater runoff, rain gardens clean and filter water as it runs from rooftops, driveways, and patios by absorbing and utilizing rainwater to hydrate local flora in the garden.

Washington State University Extension Master Gardener Christine Anderson said rain gardens are a great way for local residents to lessen their water use, avoid contamination of local streams and make a gardener’s life easier. Because of their versatility, rain gardens can be designed to fit a unique yard or landscaped with a variety of plants to “fit the surroundings.” 

“It can be unique and creative and yet be a great functional space,” Anderson said. “It’s a nifty type of garden that lends itself to fun things while also saving water.” 

Rain gardens help prevent chemicals from getting into streams and, eventually, the Puget Sound where toxic runoff from human activity and waste can harm local animal life. According to WSU Research, stormwater collected from highways around the Puget Sound can be lethal to fish. When the water is filtered through a special rain garden, the impact on fish is minimized. On a much smaller scale, backyard rain gardens can limit the amount of work a gardener needs to do since they reuse the water collected during the rains. 

Anderson said gardeners should be wary of where plants in the garden are placed. Plants able to tolerate almost standing water should be placed at the “low end” of the garden, while plants that need little to no water should be placed higher. 

Anderson said rain gardens can also be a great way for people to be creative. She noted artists can include their art in the garden and different plants can be used. 

“You can play with them a little,” she said. “You can do all kinds of nifty things that pull in bits of architecture or art. If you’re someone that collects rocks or geodes, you can add those in.”

While rain gardens aren’t the only improvements homeowners can make to their backyards, Anderson said those looking to landscape and renovate should always ask themself what they want to get from the process and “find what things will make you happy.” 

“There are a gazillion things you can do with a backyard,” she said. “If you’re someone with three big dogs, you probably don’t want a delicate little flower garden.” 

More information on rain gardens, including a booklet of tips, tricks and instructions can be found online at extension.wsu.edu/raingarden/homeowner-resources/.

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