February 21st, 2008
Rain Gardens Gone Wrong

rain garden

Living for a time both in the American desert southwest and Japan, I’m quite attracted to the aesthetic of gravel gardens and dry creek beds. As there is no shortage of rocks of all sizes in my yard, I group like rocks together in various configurations. Because I live on a slope, I often arrange rocks to follow the topography, creating an informal dry stream.

This year rain gardens seem all the rage (4,080,080 hits on Google or check out Pam/Digging). And they always look so clean and tidy when first installed, while at the same time looking natural. However, in my experience, they don’t remain clean and tidy very long. My biggest problem is leaves. In Austin, leaves can start falling in September with the cedar elms (if it’s a typical summer–2007 was wet and the leaves held on until October) until February with the live oaks (which haven’t started dropping their leaves yet). In my yard I also had hackberry and chinaberry trees (which I cut down this year) and red oaks. So for five months, leaves are clogging my dry creek beds and I can never keep them clean. The cedar elm leaves are the worst because they are small and break down quickly. They mess up my gravel courtyard and my gravel walks, too.

rain garden

Then there’s the weeds. Gravel is an excellent medium for sprouting seeds. It doesn’t matter if you put landscape fabric underneath the gravel (I did on my paths but not in my garden which is more free-form). The seeds fall on top of the gravel, work themselves down, and then sprout. I spent all afternoon digging that hated horseherb and spiderwort out of this small section of the meadow so that I could replant it with larkspur and California poppies.

So what’s the secret to maintaining gorgeous rain gardens? Do I have to move back to a treeless landscape? I guess I’ll start reading some of those 4,080,080 articles…but I’ll have to finish weeding first.

by M Sinclair Stevens

21 Responses to post “Rain Gardens Gone Wrong”

  1. From bill:

    I had that problem too when I built a dry stream.

    But just down the street from me someone else built one in their front garden about the same time I did, and theirs never had a weed in it, or leaves. All I can think of is that they must have used Round-Up heavily. I never saw them outside weeding it. But I did see them with a leaf-blower.

    Well, I’m not going to buy into either of those solutions so I just guess my rain gardens are going to be “natural” as opposed to “manicured”–like everything else in my life. — mss

  2. From Gail:


    We built a dry steam when we knew practically nothing about gardening. We just had a notion that if we built a dry bed to catch the water rushing down the slope there would be less on the patio. It works but all the eroded soil also ended up in the stream. When I clean it out, I get the best soil to toss on the wildflowers. Each fall the leaves are blown out and I crawl around and weed it a couple of times a year.

    I just haven’t found any maintenance free garden activities….I keep looking.

    clay and limestone

    Oh, so true! There’s nothing maintenance free about gardening, not even if you replace the garden with a slab of concrete. I’m not expecting maintanence-free; I just wondered if someone new some trick about rain gardens that I missed. — mss

  3. From Jenny - Las Vegas:

    I was going to suggest a leaf-blower too. My neighbor uses one all the time to shoot his leaves over the wall into my yard. His yard looks great – mine, like shit. On second thought, don’t use a leaf-blower.

    Using a gas-guzzling, noise-polluting, air-stinking leaf blower is the antithesis of what gardening means to me. My neighbor does the same thing. Shoots all his leaves into my yard. We just have a chain link fence dividing our yard and he’s uphill from me. — mss

  4. From Jan, Always Growing:

    I am glad you posted your problems with the leaves and rain gardens. I was thinking about doing one, but now I need to think about the leaves and pine needles. Thanks for mentioning this.

    Rain gardens are built in gulleys or other low spots in the yard which collect water…so, of course, they collect leaves, too. They collect leaves just like rain gutters. You just never see it in the fancy photo layouts. Does this mean I’m against rain gardens. Absolutely not. I just wish I could find some advice on maintenance as opposed to starting one up. — mss

  5. From Diana Kirby - Austin:

    Gosh – that sounds so daunting! Yikes. I think you need a baby step program, for both the weeds AND the 4,080,080 articles. I’m shaking my head with you on the leaves. My river rock paths are full of them, too. Sigh.

    Ah, ha! I’m glad to hear I’m not alone. Maybe I should have titled this post, “The Ugly Truth About Rain Gardens”. — mss

  6. From Diana Kirby - Austin:

    MSS- did you get my email about 11 tomorrow instead of 10? Then you can see the leaves in my rock!

  7. From deb:

    My MG group is doing a lecture on rain gardening as we had so much of it (rain) last year. Thanks for pointing out the pitfalls.


    I still think rain gardens, and any solution for stopping run-off, are excellent things. — mss

  8. From ewa:

    leaf problem and water containers in the garden that’s a couple. I have a pond and just before leaves start to drop I cover it with net which holes are about 1cmx1cm – it prevents leaves drop into the pond. Maybe you could cover your barrel with such net?

    I cover my pond with such a net to keep out the leaves and the raccoons. The rain barrels have fine net over them to keep out the mosquitoes. — mss

  9. From Dawn:

    Nice photos! I have the same problem with small gravel; I can never keep it looking nice enough so I tend to remove it if we inherit it from former owners. The only rocks I’ve had that I’ve dearly loved were my gray-blue Mexican River Stones in our Florida garden. Those were pretty! But those rocks were big enough that the dirt fell between them so they stayed clean looking after the rain.

    My biggest problem is with the cedar elm leaves because they are so small that they are difficult to rake. I think even a leaf blower would have trouble with them would I deign to use one. However, one feature about my garden (being mostly a garden of self-sown annuals) is that it is always changing. So picking up all the rocks, cleaning them up, and moving them around is just part of the process. Thanks, everyone, for helping me adjust my attitude–since there’s no adjusting nature. — mss

  10. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    How timely. I was just looking at my dry stream and noticing the dead leaves and fresh, green weeds in it. I normally take a broom and just sweep the leaves off my river rocks, and that has worked pretty well. One good rainstorm, and the water will flush the rest of the little leaves out of the streambed. The weeds? Just have to pull those by hand out of the dry stream. But I admit to using Round-Up on my decomposed granite paths. Tom Spencer recommends torching weeds on granite paths with a flamethrower. I’ve been too chicken to try that yet.

  11. From Lori, Austin TX:

    Instead of a leafblower, what about doing the opposite with a ShopVac? It might be loud briefly, but at least you’d have a convenient bin full of leaves to mulch what you want to mulch.

    From reading the comments, I just realized why places like The Natural Gardener rake cool patterns into their gravel– it gets rid of the leaves and makes it look nifty at the same time.

    And no matter how awesome Tom Spencer is, I don’t think I’d trust myself with a flamethrower. 😉

    The Shop Vac sucks up the gravel as well as the leaves. Actually I have the same problem when I put it in blower mode. — mss

  12. From Aiyana:

    You are right about gravel being a good medium for weeds. With the rains we’ve had here, I have more weeds than ever, and just can’t keep up. The widlflowers also are places they shouldn’t be, so I have a real mess this year. I just can’t pick any more. Next comes the vinegar, and if that doesn’t work, then Round Up, as much as I hate using it!

  13. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    Weeding and sweeping MSS, it is old fashioned but the best method so far and not bad for the environment. 🙂 Round Up would never be my solution either, but I think many people with squeaky clean rain gardens use it in abundance.

    BTW I’m glad we don’t have horseherb over here, it sounds like a very nasty weed. But we do have special blow torch thingies to burn away all the nasty weeds in the garden! Very nifty!

    How do you sweep it? I find I disturb too much gravel and the plants I’m try to grow trying to get out the leaves and the weeds I don’t want to be there. All in all, I think I prefer a nice wood-based mulch to gravel in the garden. — mss

  14. From steve:

    If you find an answer that works please tell the rest of us , I live in hope of finding an answer but I suppose if it was to easy where would be the fun in keeping it all under control


    I feel relieved to learn from all of you that I’m not the only one with maintenance intensive gravel. I like working in my garden but I believe knowing more about the pitfalls would help us prepare accordingly. — mss

  15. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    A blow-torch—that’s what Tom recommends, not a flamethrower. 🙂

  16. From Layanee:

    LOL…I think I could use a flamethrower! Blowtorch is for creme brulee! LOL That reminds me, it is almost time to burn the grasses! Hmmm good title for a post! Thanks!

    I’m tempted by the flamethrower on my gravel walks. However, it wouldn’t work in the rain garden because they are planted with various succulents and grasses. — mss

  17. From melanie:

    Well how’s this, I read the first post ever on rain gardens (never heard the term before) about five minutes ago and then I read your blog!

    I thought I’d make a charming path in my herb garden and my mom and I collected bags and bags of seashells. They look stunning but weeding them is the most horrible chore in the world. You pull up the weed and up comes a bunch of shells too. Worse than gravel I imagine.

    The shells sound lovely, in theory. This is what I like about blogs…we share the real scoop on all those gloriously lovely ideas we see in magazines. I don’t mind the most of the work, I just like to have a realistic assessment of what I’m signing up for. — mss

  18. From Karen, Savannah:

    Gravel looks so nice when you first put it down, but it is a royal pain to maintain. I have an area of pea gravel. The stones are so small that a vacuum sucks it up, and a brush spreads the gravel onto the surrounding paving. I don’t know what the solution is–if any.

    I have the same trouble with the vacumning suggestion, or even the blower. I don’t mind weeding as much as dealing with the tiny cedar elm leaves which get stuck in the agave and yucca plants and are impossible to remove by any method I’ve tried. — mss

  19. From Zoe:

    I love the rocks. I live on a barrier island, so I have none, thats part of the reason I used the mill stone. Do you know what I might get to grow on the mill stone? Thanks..beautiful informative site.

  20. From Susan, North Central Texas:

    I’ve just had a landscpae plan done that includes a rain garden and now I think I may wish to revise the scale a bit. My property over 1/2 an acre in an older neighborhood with lots of mature trees. Leaves are already a real pain in the few fountains I have. The plan has huge areas of gravel surface. I’m starting to see that this might end up being a very expensive isore if not handled properly. Thanks for the reality check !!

  21. From Linda, Austin Texas:

    Why do you have to use gravel at all? Wouldn’t some larger rocks here and there to stop all of the silt from washing downstream work, too? I’d rather plant my swale than fill it with gravel.