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How to Create a Rain Garden with Native Plants

Grow these Maine natives in poorly draining spots to create your own DIY rain garden!

Yards with soggy and poorly draining soil can be tricky to garden in. Not only will you have to contend with mud, but if you plant the wrong perennials in water-logged gardens, your plants will usually develop root rot and die back. However, Maine has a number of hardy, water-loving native plants that thrive in damp earth and make colorful additions to rain gardens, ponds, and other water features!

Rain gardens brimming with native flowers are attractive to the eye and can provide shelter and food resources for birds, insects, and other wildlife. Establishing a rain garden can also solve drainage issues on your property and add more variety to your planting arrangements. Find some of the best native plants to grow in rain gardens or near ponds and drainage ditches in the plant list below!

Photo Credit: Martha B. Moss

1.      Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed has a higher tolerance for moist soils than common milkweed, and it offers all of the benefits of other milkweed types. Like common milkweed, swamp milkweed serves as a host plant for monarchs, but it also attracts other pollinators, including bees and hummingbirds. Showy pink/purple flowers emerge in summer and can persist through early fall and eventually turn into seed pods filled with fluffy seeds that disperse in the wind.

Photo credit: NGBH

2.      Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.)

Another exceptional pollinator plant, Joe Pye weed produces broad, pink/purple flowers from late-summer through fall, which emit a luscious vanilla-like aroma and beckon to insects of all sorts. These plants have a high water tolerance and are naturally found growing along streambanks and in other moist areas. Just be choosy about where you plant Joe Pye weed; these plants can stretch over 8’ high and have a tough fibrous root system that expands outward over time!

Photo credit: Martha B. Moss

3.      Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

A close relative of great blue lobelia, aptly named cardinal flower has bright red blooms that resemble the crimson feathers of male cardinal birds. These plants grow wild along streambanks and in other damp areas, but their vivid colors are sure to spice up any rain garden. While cardinal flowers need to be watered often in dry flower beds, they require very little pampering in damp soil and can even grow in about 3” of water! They can be short-lived, so allowing them to reseed is an effective strategy to keeping them in the garden.

4.      Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not commonly grows along moist hiking trails and in poorly draining road ditches, but these water-loving plants can also be cultivated intentionally in flower gardens. With tangerine orange, tubular flowers, jewelweed is especially appealing to ruby-throated hummingbirds, but other pollinators will sup from its nectar-rich flowers. Tender stems are prone to breaking in high traffic areas, so plant jewelweed in a protected spot where it will grow with little fuss and minimal-to-no fertilizer. Jewel weed is an annual and grows 3-4’ tall.

Tip: Spotted jewelweed is not to be confused with ornamental jewelweed (Impatiens glandulifera), which is an invasive, non-native plant with pink flowers!

5.      Scotch Bellflower (Campanula rotundifolia)

The nodding, purple to blue blooms on Scotch bellflowers pair beautifully with other Maine native plants, including red columbines, milkweed, and pussy toes. These plants are usually found in dry meadows and along rocky coastlines, but they have a good deal of water tolerance and can be kept in rain gardens too. Among its many charms, Scotch bellflower tolerates both sun and part shade and it is naturally deer resistant.

Photo credit: NGBH

6.      Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Boneset gets its name from the fact that it has traditionally been used as a healing herb by the Peoples of the First Nations; however, boneset is also commonly grown as an ornamental and pollinator plant. Broad and lacy flowerheads have a similar look and feel to Joe Pye weed, but boneset’s blooms are white and boneset plants are a good deal shorter. When mature, boneset maxes out at around 2 to 4’ high and plants bloom abundantly from late summer to early fall.

Photo credit: Martha B. Moss

7.      Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)

If you want to attract pollinators to your rain garden, it’s important to choose plants that bloom at different times. Pairing late flowering Joe Pye weed and milkweed with spring-blooming golden Alexanders can be a wise choice that will keep your rain garden filled with flowers throughout the changing seasons. Pollinators, including bees and beetles, flock to golden Alexander’s bright yellow umbels, but these Maine natives also serve as host plants for black swallowtail butterflies!

Photo credit: Martha B. Moss

8.      Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens)

North America has between 100 and 150 species of goldenrod, but seaside goldenrod is one of the best choices for Maine gardens that don’t drain well. These plants not only tolerate moist soils, but they can also handle high salinity and ocean spray, meaning you can grow them seaside if needed. Although many gardeners associate goldenrod with seasonal allergies, sniffles and sneezes are much more likely to be caused by similar-looking ragweed plants.

9.      Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Also called mad-dog skullcap or blue skullcap, skullcap plants belong to the mint family and they spread via underground rhizomes, although they don’t have the same invasive tendencies as peppermint or spearmint. These plants are named for the shape of their elongated flowers, which are said to resemble the military caps that were worn during the Medieval period. Flowers range in color from purple and blue to white and draw native bees when they bloom from July to September.

Photo credit: Martha B. Moss

10.      Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa)

A fine alternative to invasive Japanese meadowsweet (Spirea japonica), steeplebush or rosy meadowsweet is another prime choice for rain gardens and plantings around ponds and other water features. Tall spires of pinkish flowers linger from July to August and can be pruned away to encourage plants to rebloom. If you prefer a more laidback gardening approach, you can also leave steeplebush flowers in place to provide interest to winter gardens and allow plants to self-sow seeds.

Tips for Rain Gardens

  • Rain gardens can be as small or large as you like. If you are working with a limited space, you can plant just a few water-loving plants in a moist ditch or other area with pooling water.

  • Soggy soils often contain large quantities of clay, which can sometimes impair plant root development. Mixing compost, aged manure or other organic matter into the soil before planting can help perennials settle in.

  • If rain gardens stay moist, they rarely need extra water. But if you notice that your rain garden is getting dry during the summer, you’ll likely need to hand water until rain arrives.

  • Adding a 1 to 3” layer of mulch over soils can further reduce watering needs and prevent weeds from creeping in.

  • Most native perennials don’t need fertilizer. In fact, overly rich soil can cause plants to grow too quickly and develop droopy stems!

  • For a more complex planting arrangement, pair smaller perennial plants with larger, foundational shrubs that like lots of water, such as buttonbush, rhodora, swamp azalea and pussy willow.

Growing a rain garden is just one way to bring more Maine native plants into your space. If you’d like to learn more about native gardening, be sure to check out the Native Gardens of Blue Hill’s upcoming summer workshops! We're hosting a summer pruning workshop on June 29th, an Open House on July 20th and, of course, volunteers are always invited to join us in the garden for our bi-weekly Friday workdays.


·       Native Gardens of Blue Hill: Plant Database

1 Comment

Jun 27

Wonderful article! I really loved your tip on pairing the late-flowering Joe Pye weed and milkweed with spring-blooming golden Alexanders, and also the fact that Seaside Goldenrod can handle high salinity. I didn't know that! Thank you for sharing this great information on how to make a rain garden using our beautiful Maine native plants.

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