When I tell people that I install rain gardens I am almost always asked the same question.
“What is a rain garden?”
Early on my answer was simple and repetitive.
But after installing or consulting on over 25 rain gardens I have found that my answer often varies on the audience.
I might tell the average person that a rain garden is an area that I dig-out and send rain into, and then use plants to soak up the water.
Sometimes this piques their interest and they have some more questions or sometimes that was sufficient and the conversation moves on.
I might tell a conservation-minded individual the same definition but add that they can be a sustainable alternative to connecting into the storm sewer system.
For a gardener or contractor I might add that a rain garden can be an economic solution to locations with poor drainage and are a great tool for meeting new on-site detention requirements of municipalities.
My answer varies because rain gardens vary.
They can be a very complex system engineered to handle a specified amount of run-off, or they can be as simple as the use of some water tolerant plants in an existing area of poor drainage.
Because of this variation it can be difficult to find one answer to the question, “What is a rain garden.”
But here is mine:
“A rain garden is a garden whose primary design consideration is to detain and absorb water.”
There are a few other definitions that I have heard and seen, but I feel that many of them limit the possibilities of rain gardens by giving them specific physical attributes.
I think that these definitions or specifications may be a well-intentioned effort to pass on what specific design considerations worked in a specific situation.
The problem I see with this is that no two sites are exactly alike and what is necessary or works in one location might not be in another.
In my opinion, a more general definition allows for a more creative and a wider use of rain gardens.
So just as a vegetable garden is a garden whose primary design consideration are vegetables, and a rose garden is a garden whose primary design consideration are roses, a rain garden is a garden whose primary design consideration is to detain rain.
To continue on that analogy, just as a vegetable or rose garden can take on all different styles and forms, a rain garden can take on all looks as well.
A rain garden could even grow vegetables or roses if you design it right.
I don’t know what you would call it.
Maybe a rain garden of vegetables or a rose rain garden, but either way, rain would be your primary design consideration and it would be first and foremost a rain garden.