Arts & Leisure

How can rain gardens help with stormwater? Ask a master gardener

Water plays a significant role in the health of our landscapes in more ways than meets the eye.

Stormwater is water that collects on the surface during and after a rainstorm or from melting snow. Depending on the permeability and slope of the surface it hits, stormwater can slowly infiltrate into the earth or wash over impermeable surfaces picking up oils, debris and pollutants along the way.

Without sustainable mitigation strategies in place, this warm, polluted water can end up in our local rivers, ponds and lakes, adding silt and pollution directly into our beautiful natural resources, lowering water and habitat quality.

While stormwater management requires collaboration at many levels, including state, community and private landowner, there are strategies each of us can implement to help manage stormwater runoff.

Utilizing plants in your landscape is an excellent way to help treat stormwater runoff. In addition to adding beauty and food for wildlife and insects, plants prevent soil erosion, slow down water speeds and soak up water and nutrients.

One way to utilize plants for stormwater management is to build rain gardens. Rain gardens temporarily collect stormwater, allowing it to slowly infiltrate into the earth.

Rain gardens often are planted with a plant species that can tolerate both wet and dry soils because there will be times when the rain garden is either saturated or dry. Try to pick plants that are native and pollinator-friendly. This will turn your rain garden into an area that not only manages stormwater but provides food and shelter to beneficial insects and pollinators.

Plants such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), butterfly weed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) are great plants to test out in rain gardens. 

Soil infiltration is incredibly important for the success of a rain garden. Not every natural low spot will make a good place for a rain garden. If your soil is compacted or heavy in clay, water may not soak into the soil quickly enough, causing your plants to struggle and water to sit too long on the surface.

The size of your rain garden should be based on the amount of stormwater you plan to collect. First, you have to determine where the water is coming from.

Is it from your roof or driveway, or a gutter or patio? Measure the surface area of these sources to help determine the overall area of the rain garden that you need.

For more details, check out the Rain Garden Manual for Vermont and the Lake Champlain Basin ( from Lake Champlain Sea Grant and University of Vermont Extension for specific recommendations on rain garden size, soil type, plant selection and easy-to-follow instructions for building your own rain garden.

Looking for other ideas for how you can help mitigate stormwater runoff?

A few simple things you can do are trying to mow your lawn less often, cutting the grass no shorter than three inches or even considering what areas you could leave as meadow.

If you have any open soil, plant a cover crop or add mulch to help keep the soil from eroding in rainstorms or snow melts.

If you live close to a river or pond, make sure to leave a large planted buffer between the water’s edge and lawn. This will help filter stormwater runoff and pollutants from entering the water and lowering water quality.

Every one of these small changes can make a big impact on improving water quality, and creating a more sustainable world. Test one out and see the difference it can make! 


Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.

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