What Plants Work Best for Rain Gardens?
There's no “best of” list that will fit every situation when it comes to rain gardens, but native perennials that can withstand both water and drought are a good place to start. Americans live in an array of growing zones with individual light and water conditions. Some experience extreme drought, while others are continuously wet. This list will give a basic overview of the best rain garden plants for North American climates with average rainfall.
This native beauty blooms all summer long, and while it can tolerate part shade, it thrives in full sun. It can also withstand light droughts, as well as standing water for a day or two.
Great around the border of your rain garden, this native perennial is average height and width, and clumps well with others. Coneflowers, or "echinacea" come in a variety of bold colors, so don’t be afraid to plant a few, and watch the butterflies come flocking.
Another native that is absolutely stunning when planted next to coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s yellow blooms also last all summer long and bring the pollinators.
They need a lot of water to maintain their golden beauty but can handle a little drought. Best planted along the border as they would prefer not to stand in water for too long, but if you have hot summers and full sun, it won’t be a problem.
Goldenrod comes in many species that flourish in various American climates making them quite versatile. Often considered a weed, these natives don’t actually cause allergies, and are quite beneficial to your garden and to pollinators.
Their tall stalks and yellow plumes bloom from late summer to fall and offer a dramatic backdrop to smaller perennials while providing nice winter interest.
Many kinds of iris will thrive in wet, water-logged soil, while also tolerating dry outs, making them perfect for a rain garden. Varieties will depend on your region, but Siberian, Japanese, and Louisiana hybrids are bred for North American climates.
They’ll be the first to pop out some late spring and early summer color in magnificent shades and assorted hues.
A low-maintenance native, the spotted Joe-pye weed will grow quite tall, but is not actually a weed. This hardy plant tolerates dry and wet conditions but thrives on moist soils, so it can be put in the deepest part of most rain gardens.
It will add structure and wow you with blooms that last all summer long, bringing butterflies and bees to its display.
The name says it all—this native plant thrives on full sun, and bees love it! Not a particularly tall plant, it fills in compact areas nicely and boasts striking dark red or pinkish flowers.
Beautiful, but not showy, bee balm will soak up excess water and provide essential nectar to pollinators.
The feathery plumes of astilbes range from snow white to pink to crimson red and are one of the few shade perennials that boast this kind of showy color. They need a ton of water, which makes environmentally-conscious gardeners wary of planting them in hot climates, but this makes them an excellent candidate for shady rain gardens.
Best planted on the borders, as they won’t tolerate soggy soil for long periods.
Sedges are generally easy-going and low-maintenance perennial plants that can tolerate a variety of conditions. Natives like spikerush, fox sedge, and palm sedge are particularly water-loving, but palm sedges are fine in full sun, or full shade.
A nice, compact plant with arching green fronds, palm sedge turns a copper shade in the fall, giving your garden some subtle, but striking shape and color.
The green foliage of ferns won’t do well in full sun but will thrive in shaded rain gardens that are consistently wet. Lady ferns are widely available and make an excellent choice for both their brilliant fans of greenery and water-loving roots. If you have a garage or shed in a shaded area, native perennial ferns are ideal for rain gardens that are fed by eaves troughs.
Blue fescue grass, fountain grass, prairie sky switchgrass, big bluestem, tufted hairgrass are just a few water-loving grasses amongst a long list of options. With so many varieties to choose from, grasses can add wonderful shape and texture to a sun or shade rain garden, and some thrive in the soggiest of soils, making them perfect for the deepest sections where water might stand the longest.
You may be tempted to plant species that thrive in marshes and wetlands, but remember rain gardens go through a cycle of drought and rainfall, so choose ones that are able to withstand dry conditions, too.
The more versatile a plant is, the better it will do in these environments. Typically, native plants will do best, and with so many to choose from, you can create something beautiful, while putting water back into local aquifers—literally saving water from going down the drain.