12 Plants That Are Perfect for Your Rain Garden

12 Plants That Are Perfect for Your Rain Garden

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Rain gardens take a bit of planning and work, but one of the most fun parts is selecting the plant material. This is a crucial step in the success of your rain garden. Choosing the right plants and knowing where to put them will decide whether you have a swampy puddle full of dead plants or a thriving mini-ecosystem with native plants that helps the environment after every rainstorm while still looking beautiful.

There are three planting zones to a rain garden: the edge, the slope, and the base. The following list will recommend where to plant each plant, but the general rule is to place plants tolerant of dry conditions on the highest locations or the edge. Plants that can handle conditions that are medium moisture with occasional dry conditions should go on the slopes. Finally, plants that can thrive in wet conditions and standing water should be placed in the bottom of the garden.

Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)

Smooth blue aster is an ideal choice for offering some color to your rain garden around the top edge that provides pollinators, especially the Pearl Crescent butterfly, with a food source.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to8Color Varieties: Violet to purple rays and yellow centersSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Dry to medium, well-drained soilRain Garden Placement: On the edge

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Including native grasses, sedges, and rushes into your rain garden is essential. The deep root systems act as a filtration method for contaminates while also allowing for efficient groundwater infiltration. As with every selection, you want to try to make the plant have multiple functions. Big Bluestem is an excellent choice because it does serve multiple purposes besides water absorption and filtration. It is an attractive grass while in bloom and during the fall and winter, but it also is a food source for birds and other wildlife while offering shelter for insects and butterfly and moth larvae.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9Color Varieties: Purplish-redSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Moist, well-drainingRain Garden Placement: In the base

New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

New York ironweed is an ideal plant to place in the base of your garden. It grows in a dense mounding shrub-like form and is tolerant to almost all growing conditions.Ironweed offers ecological benefits to pollinators and shelter to small wildlife if you allow it to grow shrubby, which can happen if it is not kept orderly.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Color Varieties: PurpleSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium to wet soilsRain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Wild bergamot is a stunning flower and a no-brainer for inclusion when planning your rain garden. It attracts pollinators, provides beauty, and helps with water infiltration. The main draw with any bergamot besides the hummingbirds it attracts is the complimentary tea you can make from the flowers.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9Color Varieties: Pink/lavender/redSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium moistureRain Garden Placement: On the slope


Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

This attractive red flower can be placed either in the bottom or along the slope of the rain garden, making it a valuable plant to add that lends some flexibility to your design. Like all plants on the list, it is valuable to water absorption and as a nectar source for pollinators. Hummingbirds love the blooms.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to9Color Varieties: RedSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium to wet soilsRain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base


Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Switchgrass is another option for a non-flowering plant that will suit your needs in the wet areas of your rain garden. It looks great in all seasons and performs wonders at absorbing water into its fibrous root system while filtering out pollutants.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9Color Varieties: PinkSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Moist to wet soilsRain Garden Placement: In the base

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Besides being a unique-looking flower, the columbine’s root system is ideal for water absorption and creating a dense matrix to manage erosion along the slope of your garden if water overruns its edge or along the inlet.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8Color Varieties: Light pink/yellow to red/yellowSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Average, mediumRain Garden Placement: On the slope

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Swamp Mallow’s strikingly beautiful large, almost dinner plate size flowers can actas a centerpiece of a rain garden if placed at the base in a prominent position.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Color Varieties: White to pinkSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium to wet soils Rain Garden Placement: In the base

Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus)

This unusually named plant gets its name from the follicles growing on the flower. It grows in a wide variety of conditions but thrives in dry areas, making the edge of your rain garden the perfect spot for its pleasing blooms to attract bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. 

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8Color Varieties: WhiteSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Dry to medium moistureRain Garden Placement: On the edge

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

Blue Vervain is another valuable plant because of its flexibility. You can place it alongthe slope or at the bottom in the garden’s base, and it will thrive in both locations.  

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9Color Varieties: Purplish-blueSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium to wetRain Garden Placement: On the slope or in the base

Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis)

Ohio Spiderwort is a drought-tolerant native with flowers that open only a single day on grass-like leaves that grow two to three feet tall, making it a perfect plant to provide some height and structure to your garden. Be careful: this can be aggressive in some southern climates.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9Color Varieties: Deep blueSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Dry to mediumRain Garden Placement: On the edge

Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

Another possible showpiece for your garden, the Blue Flag Iris should have all the other plants arranged around it because it can steal the show. The exotic look of the iris plus its height makes this a great addition; the only drawback is the short-lived nature of its flowers. However, even after the flowers have gone, the plant’s root system sticks around and does the functional work of the rain garden.

USDA Growing Zones: 3-9Color Varieties: Violet-blueSun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Moist, wet, richRain Garden Placement: In the base

These 12 herbaceous native plants only scratch the surface of what you can place in and around your rain garden. The list does not include shrubs or trees, which are certainly possible and add a whole new level of interest to a rain garden. To make sure these plants are native to your area or have direct regional natives, do your research and speak with your local extension office.

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