Yes, April can be cruel. Despite the fact that the calendar has declared it officially spring, we look out the window and see, well, a lot more gray than green — and don’t even get us started on those April showers!

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Fear not, winter-weary Nutmeggers, there are blue skies and daffodils ahead — we just know it — and in the meantime, we have just the thing for you to take full advantage of Mother Nature’s propensity for April rain: It’s called, in fact, a “rain garden.”

Dan Mullins, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District, is a bit of an expert when it comes to rain gardens. He should be, considering that under his stewardship the ECCD recently wrapped up a project in which 100 rain gardens (more than 9,000 square feet in total) were installed throughout the district’s 36 municipalities. A rain garden, Mullins explains, is in essence a “shallow depression” (albeit a beautifully planted one — more on that later) designed to collect stormwater runoff from “impervious surfaces” such as roofs, sidewalks and driveways and stop said water (and all the fertilizers, pesticides and other nasty contaminants it’s picked up along the way) before it heads down storm drains and into our rivers, lakes and, ultimately, Long Island Sound.

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Sadly, “storm-water runoff is one of the largest sources of pollution in the Sound,” says Nicole Davis, watershed coordinator for Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff contribute to depleted oxygen levels that smother aquatic life, while bacteria that contaminate the water make beaches unsafe for swimming and fishing — and then there’s the unpleasant fact, Davis says, that “a lot of Connecticut is still part of a ‘combined’ sewer system,” which means that when we get “big” rain, waste-treatment plants “can’t handle it” and untreated sewage is forced into Long Island Sound. “Rain gardens take stormwater out of the stormwater system and help minimize the overflow events,” she says.

Well then, since into each life some rain must fall, “we all need to be responsible for the water on our property” before it gets away from us, says Lisa Turoczi of Earth Tones Native Plants in Woodbury. The beauty of a rain garden, Turoczi says, is that once the runoff is captured and soaks in, “the soil does an amazing job of cleaning that water and filtering out pollutants as it percolates through the soil.” It has the important benefit of helping to “recharge groundwater,” says Michael Dietz, who runs UConn’s Institute of Water Resources.

But what does a rain garden look like? “That’s up to you,” Turoczi says. It doesn’t have to be round — what about a narrow strip at the base of your driveway? It doesn’t necessarily require full sun — why not some shade-loving ferns? In fact, with all that rain coming down, April is the perfect time to “take a walk around and study the topography of your property,” Turoczi says. See what direction the water flows during a storm; take a look at any areas that have erosion damage. And then you plan: New England aster or cardinal flower, highbush blueberry or Redosier dogwood — how does your rain garden grow?


Local color

Our experts recommend some hearty native Nutmeggers to consider for your rain garden.

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Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Lisa Turoczi’s No. 1 choice for Connecticut rain gardens also happens to be a host plant for monarchs and “an amazing nectar source” for numerous other pollinators. It will reach 3 feet and, because it can temporarily handle getting its “feet” wet, is an ideal choice for the middle (or deepest spot) of the rain garden.

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Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) A drama queen that blooms late in the season, Culver’s root produces unique “firecracker” flowers that are “easily accessible to a wide variety of pollinators,” Turoczi says.

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Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Butterfly weed’s distinctive seed pods and eye-catching clusters of bright-orange flowers make it a Nicole Davis favorite. It, too, is a host for monarch caterpillars and butterflies.

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New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) Dig some purple in the garden? Michael Dietz does, too — and this late-summer bloomer with deep reddish-purple clusters of finely petaled flowers is one of his top picks.

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Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) Hummingbirds and Davis are equally mad for the showy bright blue tubular flowers that crowd the top of great blue’s 2- to 3-foot stalks.

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) Don’t let the lacy sprays of this clump-forming grass fool you — “it can tolerate tough conditions,” Dietz says. Bonus: Its bright green leaves turn yellow come fall and provide pleasing winter color.

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Joe pye weed (Eutrochium [Eupatorium] fistulosum) This baby “gets huge,” Turoczi says — up to 8 feet tall, in fact — and is “very easy to grow.” Its impressive pink flowers stretch between 8 and 12 inches.


Let’s get this garden started

Tips from the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District (and friends) on how to design and install a rain garden.

1. Choose a location where water comes out of a gutter or directly off an impervious surface, such as a deck, driveway or sidewalk.

2. Measure the area of the roof, deck or driveway from which water is draining. Then divide that area by six in order to determine how big your rain garden should be.

3. Test the soil to make sure rainwater will soak in. Dig a small hole about 10 to 12 inches deep and fill with water. The water should drain out within 24 hours. If it doesn’t, you will want to select a different location. (“You’re not building a pond,” says Nicole Davis, of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound.)

4. Mark out the area with marking paint or a hose, and dig down into the ground about 8 to 10 inches, leaving the edges sloping toward the middle to create a shallow bowl shape. (Contact “Call Before You Dig” at 800-922-4455 or cbyd.com to avoid underground utilities.)

5. Add compost to the bottom of the garden to help your plants grow.

6. Choose a variety of plants to go in the garden, including plants that will add interest throughout the seasons. Plants that are native to Connecticut will require minimal attention once they are established and will attract native pollinators and birds.

7. Add 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the plants to suppress weeds and help protect the garden from erosion. (Michael Dietz only uses finely shredded bark mulch — no nuggets to float away.)

8. Water generously every few days until the plants are established. 

For more detailed instructions (including an interactive sizing map and link to UConn’s free rain-garden app) go to nemo.uconn.edu/raingardens

This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram@connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.