Garden Tour: Backyard Rain Garden | Midwest Living

Garden Tour: Backyard Rain Garden

A lush rain garden in a small suburban Chicago backyard saves water, reduces pollution and provides a lot of fun!

As Gregory Schaumburg was growing up, “every spare moment was spent exploring the creek that ran through the woods near our home,” he says. “Our rain garden is my attempt to give a miniature version of that experience to our kids.”

As a landscape designer, this dad has a keen interest in promoting sustainable practices as well. So he used his backyard to experiment, building every part of the rain garden himself. Gregory is proud to say that when it rains, approximately 95 percent of the water stays in his yard as a temporary water feature.

A rain garden uses berms, trenches and dry-creek beds to direct water flowing out of gutter downspouts and off hardscape (such as patios) to a low area where it temporarily pools. During a downpour, a dry streambed can burble to life, mimicking a real stream. Because the low area has wetter conditions than the rest of the yard, it allows a greater diversity of plants. And the slow seeping of the rainwater through the roots and soil screens out contaminants much better than if the runoff were to simply gush into the street.

Gregory created two shallow basins connected by a subtle channel curving through the lawn. The landscape looks lush and beautiful on any day, but when the rains fall, it comes to life with a new personality and as a place for his children to play. Though there isn’t always rain on the horizon, when it comes, you can bet this family never sings “Rain, rain, go away.”

Plants for Wet and Dry

Rain gardens are generally only wet for a few days after it rains. So landscape designer Gregory Schaumburg selected plants that would thrive in both wet and dry conditions—a tall order. Traditional plants, such as daylilies and coral bells, and ornamental grasses tie everything together. He found these plants are up to the challenge:

Coral Bells.

Golden Alexander has yellow, umbel-shape flowers in late spring. Gregory likes the way its broad leaves create textural contrast with the grasslike leaves of sedges. The plant grows 2–3 feet tall, so the family cuts the plant back to 12 inches as soon as it finishes flowering to maintain a tidy appearance.

Swamp milkweed attracts butterflies to its pink flowers in late summer. This plant grows 3–4 feet tall and 2–3 feet wide in full to part sun.

Narrow-leaf blue star struts its blue, star-shape flowers in spring. The thin, feathery foliage grows 2–3 feet tall and wide and turns golden in fall in full to part sun.

Fox sedge is a workhorse that grows about 2–3 feet tall and wide in full to part sun. Gregory likes the spiky seed heads that can be up to 4 inches long.

Pink turtlehead ‘Hot Lips’ has rose-pink flowers in late summer and shiny, deep green foliage that grows 3–4 feet tall and 2–3 feet wide. Full to part sun.

‘Little Joe’ is a dwarf Joe Pye weed with big clusters of mauve flowers that attract butterflies midsummer to fall. Grows 3–4 feet tall and 2–3 feet wide in full to part sun.

Ohio goldenrod creates a tall, vertical accent with flat-topped golden flowers in late summer. The plant grows 3–4 feet tall and 18–24 inches wide in full sun.

Palm sedge is another workhorse. It grows 2–3 feet high and wide in full to part sun. Gregory also uses the variegated cultivar ‘Oehme’ for color and texture.  


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