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Planting the Rain Garden

On the last post, I shared about designing and building my front yard rain garden. Make sure to go check it out if you’ve missed it!  Today, I wanted to share what I’ve planted.

You’ll remember that a rain garden isn’t a pond, but a basin to allow water to infiltrate into the soil. As a result, there are times when you might have standing water, soggy soils, or dry soil. If you live in an area with regular rains, you might have periods of dryness for only a few days, but if you’re in a Mediterranean climate like I am, that can mean the whole summer without water.

Having a plant go from standing water to no water is a lot to ask for. But thankfully, there are several natives that have us covered.

There are three tiers in the rain garden, or different saturation zones: the bottom, the sides (also known as the slope or terrace) and the edge (also knowns as the top or the berm). Despite the challenges of growing in a rain garden, there are actually TONS of plants to choose from. I helped narrow it down for my own space by choosing plants that encouraged butterflies or had wildlife value, and could deal with part shade and my Sacramento heat. Let’s look a bit closer at what I chose.

The Bottom of the Rain Garden

This is the deepest part of the garden and will have water in it the longest. Even if the water has all drained, this soil stays the wettest. Plants in this area need to be able to deal with wet feet, well, at least part of the time. Pond plants are out, because they also need to deal with dry periods. Another consideration, for design purposes, is that plants in the area will appear a foot shorter than the rest of the landscape.

I planted California grey rush (Juncus patens) in my rain garden bottom. Other good plants to use are California goldenrod (Solidago california), Santa Barbara Sedge (Carex barbarae), or for a larger space, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

The Sides of the Rain Garden

This area is the mid-bank area of the basin. It’s lower than the rest of the landscape, but not in the bottom. This is the level where the overflow channel is placed, so there won’t ever be large amounts of standing water, but there will be well-saturated soils.

I planted goldenrod, which also does well on this level, and Sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus). Other great native choices would be Coyote mint (Monardella villosa), California mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana– also good for the top), Milkweeds (Asclepias– also good for the top), and for the larger gardens- Western Spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis), Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii), or California wild rose (Rosa californica).

The Top of the Rain Garden

This is the perimeter surrounding the basin. Due to proximity, it can be expected the soil will be wetter than the rest of the garden, but it will never have standing water. Because my front yard is small, and I didn’t want to have lots of different plants in small quantities, I used rain garden plants for the edge and for almost all the remaining garden space.

The list of native plants that can fill this niche is too long for me to mention here, so I’ll just tell you about what I put in.

Immediately surrounding the basin and moving out farther into the garden, I have California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), and I found a really cool cultivar called Marin Pink that has pink blooms instead of the standard red, Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), Foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

The Rest of the Landscape

I wanted some additional dimension to the garden, so further away from the rain garden basin, I created a slight mound and planted a Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis), which is underplanted with Coral bells (Heuchera ‘Old La Rochette’). Against the house, in standard foundation shrub style, I have Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica “Mound San Bruno”).

I still have a bit more space to fill in, which I plan to do with the native iris and some creeping Yerba santa, but they were out of them at the nursery. I’ll put those in the spring, and until then, I threw out California poppy seeds. We’ve had a few spots of rain, but it’s been pretty lackluster. Nothing to fill up the basin, but enough to start the oxalis germinating, which I’ll diligently work on pulling.

I did set up drip to keep my plants watered for the first few years, but after they are well established, I hope to turn it off and let them get by on rainfall alone. It’s not much to look at right now, but come spring, I hope to have some brilliant new growth and flowers to show you!

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