Reduce The Runoff: Install A Rain Garden

As the wet fall weather arrives and you start noticing a lot of runoff in your yard, it may be time to consider a rain garden with native plants.

Although rain gardens seem like regular flower gardens, they are much, much more. Rain gardens manage storm water runoff by catching rainwater where it falls. They are shallow depressions that use deep-rooted native plants to filter and absorb rainwater running off roofs, driveways and other hard surfaces. Compared to the same size patch of lawn, a rain garden allows nearly 30 percent more water to soak into the ground.

Wondering what a rain garden looks like? Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners have worked with the village of Lakewood and the town of North Harmony to help Chautauqua Lake through the installation of rain gardens at Lakewood Beach and the four corners of Ashville. Another great example of a rain garden is at Chautauqua Institution around Fletcher Hall – an amazing amount of runoff from nearby parking lots and buildings is absorbed by the gorgeous assortment of native trees, shrubs and perennials.

Although any size rain garden is better than no rain garden, the general rule of thumb is the garden should be 1/3 the size of the area draining into it (i.e. roof, driveway). You can locate a rain garden to catch water from a roof, driveway or sidewalk as long as the area is relatively flat. When choosing a location keep the following in mind: it should be at least 10 feet from your house, it should receive full to partial sun, it should not be near septic systems, and the location needs good drainage, it is not a solution to wet areas in your yard.

A rain garden can be any shape but there are three key elements it should have: gently sloping sides, flat in the deepest spot and a berm (a mound of earth) on the low end. The easiest way to begin designing a rain garden is to think of the garden as having zones that are based on the soil moisture and the height of the plants.

When choosing plants for a rain garden the best choices are natives. They are adapted to the local climate and pests and they provide essential habitat for native beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife. Please note: if planting next to a road, driveway or sidewalk make sure you choose salt-tolerant plants. Ask at your local nursery about natives that are right for your particular site and landscaping needs or go online, to view and download the Reliable Natives brochures created by the Chautauqua County Master Gardeners. Below is a list of native plants that do well in rain gardens.

For more information on rain gardens or the Master Gardener Program, contact: Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator, at 664-9502, ext. 204, or email

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The Master Gardener Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County (CCE-Chautauqua). CCE-Chautauqua is a community based educational organization, affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information, call 664-9502 or visit our website at Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.