Using rain gardens to improve water quality: Part 1

Rain gardens are a great way to improve the water quality in your community and building one can be a great activity for kids!

Plants growing around an area of very wet dirt
Rain Garden at Plant and Soil Sciences building MSU Photo by Dixie Sandborn

Are you looking for a great way to improve water quality for your family and community? Rain gardens might be the answer. Also known as bioswales or rainscaping, rain gardens have many benefits including erosion control, improvement in ground water quality, habitat for wildlife, and added beauty to your landscape.

Rain gardens are part of a functional landscape that is a shallow depression dug to catch and soak up storm water run-off. Many hard surfaces produce run-off including roofs, driveways, walkways and even compacted lawns. Rain gardens are used to capture this run-off water and filter it naturally. This natural filtration helps to buffer lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and shorelines in our communities from pollutants.

Run-off is considered one of the biggest sources of water pollution in our communities and is a concern for many families. Run-off water can contain gas, oil, pesticides and other pollutants that are harmful to our environment and end up in our groundwater and other sources of fresh water.

With the current weather patterns of drought conditions followed by heavy rain events, rain gardens are more important than ever. As the rain comes down so fast and so heavy, it does not have time to soak into the ground, pollutants are swept up in the water and carried into our fresh water supplies.

It may seem like one rain garden cannot do much to keep pollutants from the groundwater supply, but just like recycling, when many people ban together it can make a big difference. Rain gardens are becoming more popular as people join together in their communities to make a big environmental impact and save our precious groundwater supply.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some of the benefits of a rain garden are:

  • Protecting local and regional water quality by reducing sediment and nutrient loads
  • Reducing stream bank and channel erosion
  • Reducing potential flooding
  • Increasing community character
  • Improving quality of life
  • Increasing habitat for wildlife
  • Balancing growth needs with environmental protection
  • Reducing infrastructure and utility maintenance costs

To help communities implement these beneficial gardens, many websites offer information on how to build rain gardens. Most include plant lists and school lesson plans, matched with state standards, so kids of all ages can build a rain garden at school. In addition to doing something good for the community, they’ll be meeting state standards across the curriculum!

Building a Backyard Rain Garden

Rain Gardens

Rain Garden Sampler  


I hope you consider a rain garden in your family plans to add new life and purpose to your landscape. Additional articles in this Michigan State University Extension series include: Part 2 - Rain garden plants.

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