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Book Review: Rain Gardening in the South

March 17, 2009

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I was fortunate enough to get a review copy of the above book, Rain Gardening in the South: Ecologically Designed Gardens for Drought, Deluge, and Everything in Between. I have to say, I’m a fan!

I read a lot of books. In fact, I read a lot of books about gardening, landscape, and architecture, which is why MJ is always trying to get me to do a hobby that is not related to what I do. Most of the books I read are either very detailed sets of technical instructions, or a very broad overview of a topic, packed with beautiful pictures, flowing prose, and not a whole lot of useful info if you wanted to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Ms. Kraus and Ms. Spafford actually managed to pull from the best of both extremes, and the result is a book that I finished in a couple of sittings, but one that I’ll also keep on my shelf as a quick reference.

Rain gardening is certainly not a new concept, but it’s becoming more and more commonly used in the landscape world. Not only are people with an interest in “greening” their gardens choosing them, but some municipalities are mandating rain gardens in certain situations. I know that several counties in Virginia have enacted ordinances limiting the amount of impervious surfacing (roofs, driveways, patios) allowed on a parcel, calculated as a percentage of the lot size. If your desired percentage exceeds what it allowed, you may be able to move forward if you also construct a rain garden or infiltration trench (an infiltration trench is essentially a rain garden on steroids, but since it’s designed by engineers, the name isn’t as pretty). I’ve seen rain gardens in Northern Virginia, typically in situations where the homebuilder had to put them in so he could squeeze an extra couple hundred square feet into the home. What they usually do in these situations is the dreaded “minimum code requirement”- excavate a shallow bowl, plunk in a bunch of viburnum and sedges, and throw down wood chips. This is why people think they don’t like rain gardens!

What the authors have done, on the other hand, is collected a variety of photos of different rain gardens. In so doing, they’ve shown that with proper attention to plant design, a rain garden can be effective AND beautiful. It’s also refreshing that they include photos of a rain garden at planting, and then the same garden after the plants have had the chance to fill in. After all, it’s important to design with the mature size of the plant in mind, but this means that you’ll have a season or two until the garden looks “finished.”

Speaking of design, the authors include several sample plans for rain gardens for specific situations: sun, shade, etc. It’s great that they use this as a chance to share what plants are appropriate to each exposure, but they also take the time to explain the design choices that are responsible for the individual plant selections. They explain they value of evergreens, overlapping masses, and planting based on viewing angle- all the little things that can help a home gardener take a planting bed from “nice” to “wow.” They’ve also compiled a large list of plants for rain gardens, broken down by sun exposure. “The South” is a big area, so be sure to check with your local nursery about the appropriateness of a plant in your area, but it’s a great start.

All in all, Rain Gardening in the South is a great addition to the home library. It’s informative, but it also presents rain gardens in a way that gets you excited to build one. That’s a victory for any author.

You can buy it via Amazon, or your check with local bookseller.

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