Archive for Rain Garden

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake


Winter view after drainage and landscape design was installed.

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake

Cindy and Chris were house shopping in Eastmoreland Portland, Oregon.  Chris found the house and brought Cindy to take a look.  The curb appeal was so bad she gave it the thumbs down and would not even go in the house. After looking at several other houses which just didn’t work for them, her husband talked her into going back.  She went inside and fell in love with everything but the front yard.  There was edited-mccann-before-front-yardone big problem which wasn’t apparent at the time of purchase and might not have been bothersome if the house was in Arizona.  Water!!! Water in the basement, and large puddles of winter rain water in the front yard drowned plants and lawn alike.  As the years passed the problem worsened.

I’m married to a designer/remodeler and while he is a creative and competent professional, he can get a little pale talking about the complexities of finding a water leak.  It can be very tricky even when you have solved these types of problem in many different situations for years.  Its nothing one should ever be arrogant about.

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio. My client and I were so pleased to be rid of the muddy winter lake - she built it herself!

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio in Wilsonville.  I used Dwarf Red Twig Dogwood in this design as well as Cindy’s.

Rain Garden Solution

Cindy is a figure it out, research the heck out of it kind of person. She talked to lots of different contractors, asked great questions and decided that a rain garden was going to be part of the solution for the water problems in her home.  She took classes from the City of Portland and researched rain gardens.  She determined the volume of water her roof and downspouts needed to handle using the formulas she learned in the class.  Her solution was to install larger gutters and downspouts and have a dry well dug and installed to handle the overflow.

Front Yard Make Over

Cindy was not prepared to take on the front yard alone.  She decided to hire a landscape designer she could collaborate with.  I am not licensed to design drainage solutions.  Cindy knew that.  I was hired to create a landscape plan with her that would create beauty and curb appeal and hide all views of the mechanical water solutions.

How I did it

I design for beauty of the landscape and to enhance the appearance and the welcoming energy of the home.  I don’t like seeing irrigation valve boxes, irrigation heads and tubing, or drainage hardware.  It’s ugly.

I started by creating a beautiful natural shaped berm in the front landscape:

  1. It would create a second level which helps to add drama and contrast to the      otherwise flat yard.
  2. We used the excess soil we would dig up to do the dry well.  It’s a terrible thing to waste good top soil so we didn’t!!

Upright dark purple ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple. Photo courtesy of Monrovia Nursery

3. They wanted a Japanese Maple.  Cindy and Chris loved the up right (not the weeping form) of dark purple leafed ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple.  Japanese Maples, Acer Palmatum, are much healthier here in the Pacific Northwest when they are planted up on a berm.  The raised soil keeps their roots from getting soaked in our winter rains.  Dryer roots helps to avoid the dreaded verticillium wilt which kills so many of our beautiful maples here. Plantings on the berm under the Japanese Maple would be highlighted because they are on a higher grade in the lawn.

We tucked a few boulders in the berm.  We added multi sized river rock over the top of the dry well and made it look like an attractive dry stream bed that fit into the berm nicely and as per Cindy’s plan would direct water to the dry well.

Cindy loves the evergreen Ink Berry shrub. It's great for wet areas.

Cindy loves the  Inkberry shrub. It’s great for wet areas.

Plantings for Wet Areas

We still had a wet area near the dry well that needed plants. Cindy loved the evergreen Inkberry and Kelsey’s Dwarf Red-Twig, Cornus Sericea ‘Kelseyi’ shrubs I used.  She had never seen the Inkberry, Ilex Glabra ‘Shamrock’  before. It’s the only evergreen shrub I use for low wet areas. Other typical small evergreen shrubs like Azaleas and Pieris get root rot and cannot be used in wet area applications.

Drought tolerant evergreen arbutus unedo

Strawberry tree, Arbutus Unedo adds a little touch of Italia to the stucco house.  Photo courtesy of Richie Steffen, Great Plant Picks

We selected classic foundation plants to frame the house, added a large pot and Strawberry Tree, Arbutus Unedo ‘Compacta’  to pick up a little Italian style on the south side and we were finished!

Mission Accomplished

I talked with Cindy recently.  “The front yard is thriving.  I’m so happy every time I look at it.”  The design has stood the test of time.  It’s been 10 years since we installed the design. The only thing she changed was replacing her Johnny Jump Ups Violas for Black Mondo Grass. Mission accomplished, she loves her front yard!

Cindy and I created the design together in a day.  It was a simple design meant to be low maintenance with full season interest.  Her landscape contractors installed the design, I came by and placed the plant material for the contractors and it was done.  Voila!


Rain Gardens with Year Round Color

Here are 5 examples of Portland Rain Gardens

Downspout disconnect rain garden in Raliegh Hills. Designed by Carol Lindsay and D & J Landscape Contracting

#1  Downspout disconnect rain garden in Raliegh Hills. Designed by Carol Lindsay and D & J Landscape Contracting

People think they have to use the most wet tolerant bog plants available for their rain garden or downspout disconnect. Sadly,these plants tend to look half dead or are dormant during winter. Most people want full season color or at least winter interest plants.  Here are 5 examples of Portland Rain Gardens or downspout disconnects that can look good year round.

#1  Plantings used:  Acorus gramiumus  mimimus pusilus aureas, what a mouthful for a small gold Iris. Miniature Golden Sweet Flag is a lot easier to remember.  The evergreen narrow gold tufts form a somewhat flattened pinwheel which adds interesting texture.  It will take standing water that drains away so its perfect for rain gardens and I use it in the area of the swale or raingarden that sees a lot of winter water.  I also use it as an evergreen groundcover in rock gardens where it doesn’t see much summer irrigation.  It’s quite versatile.  The other plantings are set outside of the wettest area so I don’t have to use a true bog plant.   Beesia Deltophylla (False Bugbane), is set on the edges of the wet area.  This plant would die in standing water. The leaves are heart shaped,  glossy and evergreen so its a perfect companion plant for the miniature gold sweet flag providing year round interest.

This next plant is important because it’s an evergreen shrub that will tolerate wet winter soils.  Designers know that finding evergreens that will survive a wet area is very difficult. I’ve used Ilex Glabra ‘Compacta’, compact Inkberry Holly as a foundation planting. It looks kind of like a boxwood and its great for entry areas.  Don’t be fooled by the word compacta. You can keep this plant to 2’ by 2’, but you will have to prune it twice a year to keep it this size.  It will happily grow to 4′ x 4′ and then over many years even larger.   Not convinced?I could give you a list of 20 dwarf evergreen shrubs that would die over one winter in a wet area but will restrain myself to just 5:  Azaleas, Escollonia, dwarf Pieris, dwarf Rhododendron,  and dwarf conifers to include expensive little Hemlocks.

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio. My client and I were so pleased to be rid of the muddy winter lake - she built it herself!

#2 Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio. My client and I were so pleased to be rid of the muddy winter lake – she built it herself!

#2 This rain garden was built on the edge of a small entry patio to remove the annual winter lake that collected there. My client did not install the pipe that carried away the water but she did dig and install her own rock and the plantings from my design.  You know it works because otherwise the vine maple on either side of the rain garden would be dead instead of in their glorious fall color. Dwarf red twig dogwood shrublets and a mid sized golden sweet Flag  (grassy iris)  add year round color.  (Cornus Sericea ‘Kelseyi’ and Acorus Gramiumus Aureas.)  This dogwood variety has the nice red twigs in winter but can get some unattractive leaf spots in spring.  There doesn’t seem to be a short variety that doesn’t get the leaf spots.  I think accepting that some years they will have spots is best rather than fight it.  Life is too short for spraying plants with chemicals and there are too many side effects from fungicides for us and for bees.

Designed and implemented by the City of Portland for my clients in North Portland.

#3 Designed and implemented by the City of Portland for my clients in North Portland.

#3  Blue Flowered Grass, Sisyrinchium Bellus adds a flower garden feel  to this rain garden.  It is a native plant that tolerates seasonal flooding.  It is planted in the center of the swale/raingarden where it will get the most winter water out of all the plants here.  They also have a dwarf Japanese golden spirea planted on the sides of the low center.  Japanese Spireas are commonly used in home landscaping but they won’t survive standing water but will tolerate winter water that passes through.   Our NW  native American Spirea Douglasii is very popular and commonly used on the sides or near the bottom of rain gardens. It gets 6’ by 6’ so is too large for home landscapes.  It works well in natural areas.  You can also see it used in parking lot swales such as the one at OMSI down on the east side of the Willamette river.  Overall garden number 3 relies on the evergreen blue eyed  grass and pattern of river rock for winter good looks.

edited dry stream bed d and r 2007

#4 Hillside garden with dry stream bed in NW Portland.

#4  This hillside dry stream bed with a drain at the bottom does’t have any plants inside the winter water area.  These plants are planted above the wet stream area  and spill down to hide the logs they are planted behind.  They are planted in fertile well draining soil and irrigated in the summer.  They only look as if they are part of the stream.  There are many varieties of ferns, fall blooming toad lilly Tricyrtis Hirta, *Oxalis Organa, *Japanese Solomans Seal Polygonatum Falcatum  (evergreen solomans seal), and *Carex grass   The ferns look great 9 months out of the year. The plants with asteriks are evergreen through the winter most years and carry the garden in the winter.


Industrial/Modern style for downspout disconnect. Photo from ANLD Garden Designers Tour 2014

#5  Industrial/Modern style for downspout disconnect. Photo from ANLD Garden Designers Tour 2014


Garden #5 uses no plants at all.  It relies on the ornamental rain chain, the steel boxes and the black rock to carry the day year round.  Designer Barbara Hilty.











Landscape Swamp to Garden Paradise

Landscape Swamp to Garden Paradise

Vicki Masterson wanted her dream garden. She and her husband Pete were recently retired. She had a beautiful new home and was looking forward to having a yard to play gardener in for the first time in her life.

She expressed her deep concerns about the landscape’s ability to ever play its part in her dream. She and Pete had never worked with a landscape and yet accurately diagnosed severe drainage problems and an extremely high water table on their site.  Her neighbors told her that in winter, “everything is pretty much a lake“.  Their soil was sludge and the view from the great room was a 10′ high wall consisting of straight stacked ugly boulders, topped with a 6′ wood fence.

Nothing but problems in this backyard.

Pete and Vicki selected Carol Lindsay of Landscape Design In A Day to help them with their difficult backyard.

Amending the soil and hiding this ugly wall with plants was not possible due to the high winter water table.  On our design day it was still summer – so instead of water logged muck – we had impossibly hard baked clay.  I was glad to know that I could solve it all and give Vicki her dream.  The first thing I did was meet with Donna Burdick of D&J Landscape Contracting. Over coffee we poured over photos and discussed the site’s problems.

Boulders and imported soil create easy gardening.

Notice all the raised beds? The drainage is in the paths and will take the winter rain water off the property.


Donna designed a professional drainage plan.  With this kind of collaboration, the designer’s vision leads the process and the clients dreams are realized.  The drainage solution disappears into the design.

Good drainage opened the plant palette so I could pick from thousands of possible plants and combinations for Vicki and Peter Matterson. Deciduous shrubs such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ provide stunning winter interest with its rich orange, red and yellow stems. I created an area for wetland plants with varieties that will be perfectly happy with the high water table and tall enough to visually soften the wall.

Construction process for difficult site with poor drainage.

D&J Landscape Contracting created easy access to the backyard from the adjacent wetlands, saving the clients money.

“I LOVE the bones of the garden and all of the possibilities for me to play in.  It is a perfect garden for a senior to enjoy.  I thank you because it is perfect for me. Donna and her crew did an excellent job with the structure and construction which is so important to me.  Again thank you, I am glad I called you and got the benefit of your knowledge.”

“The longer I am here the more I appreciate the thought and your knowledge at designing my garden.  Our main concern was the drainage and we have
had no drainage problems so far.  Many thank you’s for designing my garden to fit my yard and my life.” – commented Vicki Masterson

Completed bones of the new garden

“I LOVE the bones of the garden and all of the possibilities for me to play in it. It is a perfect garden for a senior to enjoy.” Vicki Masterson

Masterson's backyard on design day

Her neighbors told her that in winter:”Everything is pretty much a lake.” Their soil was sludge. This photo shows the view from the great room – a 10′ high wall consisting of straight stacked boulders, topped with a 6′ plain, wooden fence.


Rain Gardens Just in Time for Fall

Rain Garden plants like dwarf golden acorus add drama.

Rain Garden with attractive evergreens makes the entry look great even in winter. (Smith Entry)

My clients had disconnected their down spout and sort of had a rain garden but rain water flowed across the front walk making it slippery, mossy and messy.

After I created a basic design for the rain garden, I brought in Donna Burdick of
D & J Landscape Contractors.  We worked together to finalize the design and then placed the rock to create the stream effect. Plantings were the finishing touch.


Year Round Interest Plants Used

Wet area needs Rain Garden

Before Rain Garden: The Smiths enjoy their holiday flamingos in a wet untamed area by their front door.

Christmas Plantings Look Great

The plantings look good even at Christmas with glossy gold grass and dark green leafed plantings.

Now when the Smith’s get out their flamingos for holiday decoration, their entry looks lush and welcoming.



Rain Gardens are not just a ring of drainrock!!!  Courtyard entries are the norm in Charbonneau, a planned community in Wilsonville, Oregon.

The client and Carol Lindsay of Landscape Design in a Day placed the  rocks and plantings.   No more standing water.

Courtyard Entry w Rain Garden

The rain garden fits into my clients’ garden style beautifully.









Rain Garden Solves Entry Pond Problem
Small courtyard entries are the norm in Charbonneau, a planned community in Wilsonville, Oregon.  My clients had a yearly winter pond in their courtyard entry.

Heavy Clay Soils Present Design Challenges
The soil has heavy clay and does not drain well. My clients in this area do a lot of soil prep. They have to install drains or take drastic measures to deal with winter rain water.

One half of the courtyard was buried in several inches of water every time it rained. It would take days or even weeks to drain away.  We decided a rain garden with pizzazz might solve their water problems and fit in with their garden style.

Landscape Design in a Day Comes to the Rescue
The client and Carol Lindsay of Landscape Design in a Day placed rocks and plantings. We used the large-sized Gold Acorus grass (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) with Kelsey’s Dwarf Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’) along the back wall. We may look at using a dwarf Compact Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’) instead as the garden continues to develop. The client installed their own perforated pipe under the rain garden – resulting in no more standing water going for over five years now.