Using our land, our yards to bless our downstream neighbors will look differently depending on the owners, the soil, the sunlight, even the creatures who pass through. What is important is that everyone can do something to live carefully and thoughtfully on the land.

If you are interested in doing more with your landscape, there are some instructions for rain gardens on this page. There are more and more online resources to guide you through the process. If you would like help and you live in the Plaster Creek watershed, please contact us for site assessments, design plans, installation, and/or native plants. All proceeds return to the work of restoring Plaster Creek. You may also consider checking out Native Plant Guild for further sources of excellent native landscaping help.

Curb cut rain gardens for Plaster Creek

These bowl-shaped gardens between the road and sidewalk capture polluted rainwater off the road. The Michigan native plants in these gardens are already adapted to absorb and filter this stormwater with their deep roots while also attracting pollinators.

Willing homeowners in Oakdale, Garfield Park, and Alger Heights who agree to maintain a rain garden with a few years of our support, should apply here. Currently, there is a waiting list for free gardens, but if their site fits our criteria and funding becomes available, we will contact them for next steps. Homeowners can also contact Plaster Creek Stewards to install one for a reasonable fee.

Installing a rain garden

1. Site selection

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If you're interested in a rain garden, chances are you probably have a site picked out in the back of your mind. Here are a few points to consider as you think about location:

  • Keep the garden 10–15 feet from foundations
  • Don't put it over a septic system
  • The best spot in your yard is NOT that soggy low spot—the best rain gardens drain quickly!
  • Know your soils and plan accordingly! Sand drains best, and clay drains poorly.

2. Design

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There are two main schools of thought when it comes to rain garden design:

  1. The technical: analyze, measure, assess, calculate, predict, prepare, and carefully implement
  2. The guess and check: "seems like rainwater will go this way, let's dig a hole and fill it up with plants!"

Both styles have their time and place, and for many rain gardens on a homeowner's property, the "guess and check method" will work just fine. That said, if you're dealing with heavy volumes of rain, or you're thinking about using a rain garden for erosion control, then we'd strongly recomend using the more technical approach—remember, a poorly planned rain garden could lead to a wet basement!

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We avoided the risk of water damage to the building's foundation grading this by "buffer-style" rain garden in a way that drained away from the building. We placed rocks around the drain to allow more time for the rain garden to take care of the storm water.

There are scores of resources out there for you if you're interested in getting a more in-depth overview of rain garden design:

Sizing

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To retain the volume of water associated with mostrain storms, try to make a rain garden about one fifth (20%) the size of the area it's draining, assuming a depth of 6 to 12 inches. So if your roof is 20 feet by 50 feet (1000 square feet), then your rain garden should be about 200 square feet in area (a 10 by 20 foot rectangle, or a circle with a 16 foot diameter).

Remember: you can still install undersized rain gardens if you account for the flow of water through and out of the garden. Once this rain garden fills up, storm water simply drains past it--on to a storm drain or to the lawn behind the garden.

3. Site preparation, construction, and planting

Removing sod

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Once you've got a feel for the location, size, and design of your rain garden, you should feel an overwhelming urge to remove some sod and dig out a basin. You can do this with a spade/shovel by digging through the grass's shalow root system and rolling it up, or you can get rent a sod cutter (better for large areas) and make quick work of the grass.

Not dealing with sod?

The nice thing about putting in a rain garden in place of lawn is that as you remove the sod, a lot of the weed seed goes with it. If you're installing a rain garden in an area that didn't have lawn, was overgrown, and/or full of weeds, you'll need to remove the weeds (with a careful application of herbicide or by hand pulling) and wait for the seed in your freshly weeded bed to germinate (this is called flushing the seed bank). It may look nice after you weed it initially, but don't be fooled—there are weed seeds in the soil! And "flushing" the seed bank a few times will ensure that you don't find yourself overwhelmed with pesky weeds after you plant up your rain garden.

Plant selection

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Michigan native plants have adapted to our conditions while also providing habitat needs for pollinators and birds. Consider using deep rooted native species in your rain gardens to improve absorption of stormwater and enjoy 4 seasons of variety and beauty. Use plants adapted to the conditions of your site: sun/shade, sandy/clay, wet/dry. This chart from the Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve may help get you started with the variety of plants to choose from. There are local native plants sales offered several time a year through Calvin College Bunker Interpretive Center, River City Wild Ones, Kent Soil and Water Conservation District, and through growers with Native Plant Guild. We grow a large variety native plants in our greenhouse as well.

Extras

A few extra items may help the rain garden flourish quickly. Mixing in a small amount of compost with the native soil will give the plants a little boost to get established. Wood chips spread over the soil before planting will help smoother weed seed from sprouting. They are not necessary to re-apply every year as they will suppress native seeds from sprouting too, but along the edges of the garden they will add a more formal look. Finally, optional rocks, fencing, or garden “statues” will communicate that this is an intentional garden and not a “wild patch of weeds.”

Sediment traps

Some rain gardens (especially curb cut rain gardens) may filter lots of sediment and other debris from stormwater. Homeowners will need to keep those sediments cleaned out of their rock channels to keep them draining quickly. There are various models of sediment traps, feel free to download our simple plan here.

4. Maintenance

Initially, rain gardens will need periodic watering until the plants are established. Keeping an eye on the plants will also help you identify weeds that begin to show up. Becoming familiar with both the native plants and the non-native plants will make the ongoing weeding over the years easier. As the native plants become established they will keep the weed population down to an occasional chore, and watering and fertilizing shouldn’t be needed.

Consider joining our Rain Garden Maintenance Facebook Group to ask questions and post pictures.

Rain Garden Maintenance Workshop presentation is available here for more information including sediment trap instructions.

This Rain Garden Maintenance booklet is prepared for homeowners as part of a grant-funded project to install 60 curb-cut raingardens in Southeast Grand Rapids. It may be useful to you as well as it walks homeowners through three years worth of maintenance tasks to help the gardens reach maturity and health. The document takes a moment to open, but great things come to those who wait.