Floridata Article

Rain Lilies for my rain gardens

Rain Lily. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Rain Lily ( Zephyranthus atamasca)

Rain gardens serve two main purposes:
1) to capture or slow down rainwater runoff and allow it to percolate through the soil or be absorbed by water-loving plants; and
2) to prevent soil erosion from fast moving water. The runoff comes from gutter downspouts, French drain systems, or from impervious surfaces such as driveways and roads. Of course, a rain garden with its water tolerant plants will also look better than a drainage ditch.

Over the past few weeks, I've installed four different rain gardens. Two are at the outflows from French drain systems and two are catching the outflow from downspouts. Two locations had significant erosion problems. When the hard rains came, I watched the water flows and made some adjustments in the rock and plant placements. More adjustments and more plantings may be necessary as we go through the first few years of the gardens.

The rocks that look like river rocks that I used in these rain garden project are fake and made from cement. I found a partial pallet of them in the woods behind the garage. They were left over from building our house: the previous owner had used the fake river rocks to line the gas log at the corner of our living room.


Before rain garden was installed. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Before rain garden was installed.

I started with the easiest project where a downspout emptied directly into the lawn. Not much erosion here, but the lawn was really soggy after every downpour and the plastic deflector was tipped toward the house creating mosquito-attracting puddles after each rain. But this rain garden was mostly for aesthetics. I removed about 18 inches of lawn, reset the runoff tray, and set in some river stones over a deep bed of gravel: this is really a small dry well. This location is in a partly sunny location, so I planted two sun-tolerant ferns: Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron) and Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata). I also planted Rain Lilies (Zephyranthus atamasco) alongside the rocks. I added some moss between the rocks to soften their appearance and make the installation look less new.

Rain garden installed at bottom of downspout a year later. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
A year later, the downspout rain garden provides interest and slows down the outflows.

Note for non-Florida readers: If your house has a basement, locating a rain garden this close to the foundation would not be prudent.  You would use a drainpipe to take water away from your foundation and install your rain garden so the draining water will not end up in your basement.

The ferns grow in great mats in the woods along the drainage gully from our pond to the lake. I found the rain lilies in a drainage ditch not far from my house. When removing plants from an existing population, take them from the middle overcrowded areas, then replace the divot like a golfer. Leave the edges of the population alone so that it may expand naturally. Do not remove these threatened plants from roadside ditches or other public property. (Update: those upright ferns are not spleenworts but the invasive tuberous sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia). I've removed them from this rain garden and continue to knock them back in the wooded area. Also see Rain Garden Expansion.)

Outflow from French drain system had caused significant erosion. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Outflow from French drain system had caused significant erosion in only 2 years.

The two outflows from French drains located at the top of the drainage gully from the pond to the lake had caused significant erosion. The first step was to fill in the hole under each pipe and then create a smooth path for the water from the pipes to the stream using the rocks. The idea here was not so much to slow the water, as to keep it from further eroding the bank until it reached the bottom of the slope. At the bottom of the slope, I created a wider area where water can pool before it flows into the drainage ditch.


Rocks now prevent erosion from this outflow. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Rocks now prevent erosion from this outflow.

Because of the deep shade and because these areas are hidden away, I didn't plant rain lilies here. In addition to the spleenworts and netted chain ferns, I also planted cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Virginia chain ferns (Woodwardia virginica). These two large ferns look almost alike except for the cinnamon stick fertile fronds of the cinnamon ferns that are evident in the spring. Of course, here in Florida, I noticed that they are produced in the fall, too. Double your pleasure.


Before: pondside drain pipe. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
The pond-side French drainpipe outflow before rain garden was installed.

The last rain garden is out by the pond at the outflow from the French drain system in the front of the house. This one needed the least amount of work because cinnamon ferns, grasses, and a small holly were already growing in front of the pipe.

I put rocks around the pipe and between the existing plants. Then toward the bottom of the garden I created a pooling area where I planted more ferns and several bunches of unidentified rushes.

A rush looks like a coarse, spiky kind of grass. The stems are round, but the flowers don't form at the top of a stem like a grass. They look like they sprout from side of the stem near the top. I found quite a few rushes growing in low areas of the lawn. Since we didn't mow all winter, they were conspicuous amongst the grasses with their upright, darker green stems. Rushes love soggy or boggy areas, so I dug them out of the lawn. The ones I didn't use for the rain gardens were planted along the edge of the pond.


This rain garden a year later.  The 
					head start with plants already in the outflow area looks great. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Rocks arranged around the plants create a bioswale to absorb water in this spot and before it flows into the pond.

The runoff from our cement driveway did not require a rain garden because it is directed into a forested area where cinnamon ferns, red maples (Acer rubrum), Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) and southern bayberries (Myrica ceriferav) tolerate and absorb the standing water. Runoff from driveways and roads contain oil and other fluids that leak from vehicles, so it's important that this runoff not go directly into our waterways. Let it percolate through the soil so by the time it reaches the aquifer, it's cleaner.

Rainwater is not a waste product, but a valuable resource.

Rain gardens and rain barrels, which I talked about last time, are two simple ways that everyone can help to save water and reduce the impact of storm water runoff on our waterways.

Other Resources:

- See the progress of a rain garden in Expanded Rain Garden.
- Learn how to create a large dry well or a water sink to expand the capacity of a rain garden in A New Bed... and Standing Stormwater
- More resources are on the EPA's webpage: Stormwater management best Practices.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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