Quick Tips For Planning a Rain Garden

Designed to collect runoff from roofs, driveways and other hard surfaces, rain gardens are 3-12 inch deep, saucer-shaped depressions filled with loose soil, rocks and native plants. Approximately 70 percent of pollution is caused by storm water runoff. Rain gardens help to reduce storm water pollution by capturing the runoff before it enters the drains. Once captured, the runoff then filters through the plants and soil, recharging the ground water and improving the overall quality of the watershed by removing pollutants, such as, oil, heavy metal, and aqua eco-system damaging nutrients. Rain gardens also provide an attractive option for resolving many types of drainage issues and often attract birds, butterflies and beneficial insects.

Quick Tips

  • Identify a low-lying area on your site that is able to catch runoff before it flows into storm drains or waterway
  • Rain gardens should be located at least 15-20 feet from the home with a grassy buffer or a rocky area where the runoff passes through before entering the garden
  • Consider positioning your garden so that any excess water will overflow away from your home
  • Determine the size (generally, 150-400 square feet), shape, depth and budget for your garden
  • Build a berm (low soil mound along the downhill side of the garden) and Dig the Garden!
  • Don’t forget, soil amendments such as sand and compost will improve overall drainage

For comprehensive information and instructions related to rainscaping, please visit the Chesapeake Ecology Center. If you would like to visit a rain garden, a good example is Brookside Gardens located in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Incorporating Native Plants

Native plants thrive in local environmental conditions and are able to tolerate fluctuations in climate and water levels. By incorporating a variety of plants in your rain garden design you will create visual interest and aesthetic value. Try these native plants when designing your garden:

  • Trees – Red Maple, River Birch, Sweet Bay Magnolia, American Holly
  • Shrubs – Red Twig Dogwood, Pussy Willow, Clethra, Itea, Aronia, Grasses, Winterberry Holly, Bayberry
  • Perennials – Hibiscus, Iris, Lobelia, Blackeyed Susans, Carex, Joy Pye Weed, Daylilly, Astilbe, Chelone, Creeping Jenny, Monarda


Top 10 Picks for Sustainable All-Season Gardens

Winter seems a distant memory in the midst of spring’s explosion of color, but wouldn’t it be nice if your garden brought you as much joy in the cold months as it does in the summer? Why not plant blooms in the spring that will beat cabin fever in February?  At Architectural Gardens we love selecting plants for four season gardens as well as for sustainability. Here are our top picks for perennials and shrubs that will jazz up your yard no matter the weather.

Wild Indigo – Baptisia australis

You may have seen the deep purple Wild Indigo spikes blooming in the garden right now. Its tall flower clusters juxtapose well with the bulbous peonies in our garden. A beautiful, low maintenance plant, it’s a favorite in spring as well as a focal point in winter. The decorative black seed pods persist all winter long and make a rattling sound when you brush by them on a winter walk. The flowers of this Maryland native are also used as a natural source for blue dye and if you’re still not convinced that this is an all-around great plant, Baptisia is also effective in soil remediation as it fixes nitrogen in the soil. A mature plant can get as tall as five feet, making it big enough to be an eye catcher and subtle enough to blend into the bed.

Witch Hazel – Hamamelis x intermedia
Arnold Promise’

How many plants do you know will bloom for you in February? A winter compliment to the Wild Indigo seed pods is the striking yellow flowers of a Witch Hazel shrub. The intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ hybrid blooms late in the winter and will get you through February and March while you are waiting for your bulbs to come up. Witch Hazel blossoms are unique yellow mop tops that blanket the shrub in an explosion of color and fragrance. In addition to being an odiferous pick-me-up in late winter, the leaves of this marvelous plant gives you fall hues of yellow and orange. Plant Witch Hazel in your garden to support your local butterfly population, the larva of the beautiful bugs love to feed on it.

Wood Spurge—Euphorbia amygdaloides

Euphorbia is the unexpected evergreen. It may look like a fragile perennial, but it keeps its green leaves through the winter and will bloom for you come spring. Plant Wood Spurge for those finicky shady spots of your garden or to contrast the bright blossoms of your winter flowering Witch Hazel. This plant blooms in mid to late spring, with subtle chartreuse blossoms creating a tapestry of gradient color. Wood Spurge only gets about three feet tall and spreads easily. Another great plant for feeding butterfly larva, Wood Spurge will support your backyard ecosystem while filling in your winter garden.

Raulston Allspice – Calycanthus x raulstonii

f you are looking for something to compliment the yellow in your Euphorbia blossoms this spring, try planting a Raulson Allspice. Pictured is the Calycanthus hybrid a cross of the native speciesand a Chinese counterpart. This hybrid has a deeper red wine colored flower. Interestingly enough, the blossoms of this cultivar actually have a wine-like smell to them. Calycanthus grows fast and can get as tall as eight feet, but pruning after it flowers will keep it smaller if desired. If you remove the old flowers people will be admiring your awesome blossoms all summer long.

Wild Red Columbine – Aquilegia canadensis

Looking for a touch of the wilderness in your garden this spring? Check out Wild Red Columbine. You may have seen this variety growing as a wild flower in woody, rocky areas of the mountains, but it’s delicate foliage and intricate flowers fit right into the suburbs too.  Wild looking red and yellow bell shaped blossomsare a perfect partner for a purple flowering plant, as seen in the photos from our garden, where we’ve planted it with Salvia. This is also a great plant for your wildlife habitat, since the nectar of these flowers attracts hummingbirds.

Red Chokeberry – Aronia arbutifolia

While winter blooms are unique and summer interest is abundant, some plants put on their most magnificent show in the fall. The Red Chokeberry is prime example.  An early bloomer with subtle small white flowers, you may not notice this shrub in the landscape until it shows its fantastic red, orange and yellow colors in the fall. This performance is accompanied by deep blue berries that persist through the winter. Chokeberry is not only a magnificent Maryland native, but edible as well. Recent studies show that Chokeberries are very high in antioxidants. Often planted in hedges, this plant can get as tall as 10 feet with a 5-foot spread. If you are looking to expand your edible perennial garden, a hedge of Chokeberries may be the plant for you.

Virginia Sweetspire — Itea virginica

ain gardens are one of the best ways to live sustainably in our marshy state of Maryland and Itea is a great plant to plant for those boggy conditions. Virginia Sweetspire is one of those wonderful plants that gives you blooms in the spring and color in the fall. Getting as high as six feet tall, this shrub explodes with fragrant drooping blossoms in late spring and ignites with deep red and purple foliage in the fall.

Bald Cypress – Taxodium distichum

If you have some space and are looking for something larger in your rain water bog, a Bald Cypress may be just what you want. This unique conifer looks like no other tree with bright green, feather like needles that display a cascade of orange in fall. In winter, the Bald Cypress shows its red, brown and silver exfoliating bark.  These trees get pretty big, sometimes topping off at 75’ tall, but if you have the space, this is an out-of-the-ordinary selection for the suburban landscape.

Dwarf Witch Alder – Fothergilla gardenii

Dwarf Witch Adler seems to have it all figured out by making a show of it when the other plants are still asleep. This plant will be the first to bloom in spring and the last to show its fall foliage. Witch Alder is a perfect native perennial for the impatient spring gardener, but will also keep you intrigued during the longing last days before winter. The dwarf varieties grow to about four feet and could do well as a lower growing companion to the Virginia Sweetspire, offering lighter hues of reds and yellows at the end of the season. Dwarf Witch Adler is a very low maintenance shrub, relatively pest free, and requires almost no pruning. This plant can do no wrong.

Oakleaf Hydrangea – Hydrangea quercifolia


Oakleaf Hydrangea is one of those plants you can spot going 60mph down the highway. Whether you notice the erect flower panicles in summer, popping out in every direction like white fireworks, or the rich colors of red and purple leaves that paint the fall landscape, this is a standout shrub. Even in winter the rust colored flower heads are prominent in the garden, dried and displayed atop naked brown branches. The Oakleaf Hydrangea brightens up the understory of any garden with its year-round performance. One of the few hydrangeas native to North America, the Oakleaf Hydrangea is an amazing specimen plant for your native flower garden.

Putting Spring in Our Step

After the cold, wet, grey winter…and before pre-season madness, I took a little jaunt to Tucson, Arizona.  It was late February and spring was just beginning. The complete opposite of Maryland, Tucson brought me sunshine and 80-degree days.

Since I’m always preaching about storm water management (being a certified Master Watershed Steward through the Watershed Stewards Academy) and the people of Arizona have harvested rain water for centuries, I knew the trip would tie into Architectural Gardens’ sustainable landscape practices. Two hikes during my extended weekend stay did not disappoint.

A walkabout at Tohono Chuf Park’s Sin Agua (Spanish for “without water”) detailed how rainwater runoff is channeled for water harvesting. By doing so, Arizona’s average of a meager 12” annual rainfall hydrates like 40” of rain. Add in native and adapted plants and a landscape is created that uses little or no supplemental groundwater.

As a comparison, Maryland gets an average of 42” of rain a year. Without the hardships of Arizona, (harsh, dry conditions/expensive water), think of the possibilities.  Here in Anne Arundel County, we harvest the water, capturing it into a rain garden – concaved bowls in the ground collect storm water.  Fill these with our native plants, the water filters in slowly, and contaminants go into the ground. Saves the Chesapeake Bay!

So, about those native plants… Hiking in the Saguaro National Park – the desert, I thought, “This is nothing but cactus!” But then, I started to notice all the different shapes and sizes and textures, and saw it was really beautiful! Here’s this desert – all green and brown, but you can see each cactus, depending on its form and its shape. The plants stand out in their natural setting. What a pleasant surprise!

In Maryland, we have shade gardens, but with a palette of greens. Imagine a few of our interesting native plants like the Maidenhair Fern and Flowering Dogwood, layered with Hostas and the fine leaves of a Japanese Maple. Combine different shapes, forms and textures, and you create a beautiful garden.

Fall Fertilizing 101

Many people are under the misconception that the best time to fertilize is spring. That’s true for flowers, but not so true for trees, shrubs and grasses, when actually the optimum time is in October and November right before dormancy when root systems are most active and most hungry for nutrients. What’s most lacking in their diet, what root systems crave the most is nitrogen. Administering fertilizer rich in nitrogen will help ensure evergreens stay green through the winter, lawns punch up healthy and green in spring and deciduous trees and shrubs fill in with leaves strong and full when the growing season gets underway.

Choosing a fertilizer
When selecting a fertilizer make sure it’s the slow release variety. This will give the roots adequate time to take up the food and should a heavy rain come and wash it all away, which happens occasionally despite our best efforts to feed during dry spells, slow release runoff is much less harmful to the Bay than its immediate release cousin. Speaking of Bay-friendly, organic is the way to go. At first glance, organic fertilizer seems to be more expensive; but read the label carefully and you will find that non-organics use a lot of salt and other fillers; in a fair comparison of the two, measuring actual fertilizer pound for pound, the cost is essentially the same.

Testing the soil
While it’s important to know when to fertilize it’s even more important to know what your soil is made of to ensure feeding the right fertilizer at the right amounts to achieve the results you wantand avoid mistakes. When it comes to fertilizing I like to say, “Timing is everything but testing is the only thing.” Testing should be done regularly, once every two years, because soil can change over time. I’ll give you an example. We had a client who had a bed of 45 roses at the bottom of a very green,  lawn-covered hill. The roses grew beautifully for many years and then, seemingly out of the blue, started to struggle. Come to find out, after testing the soil, the bed’s PH levels were very high and too alkaline for the roses to be happy; the reason for the high PH levels was the repeated liming of the grass, whose runoff was leaching into the rose bed. So we adjusted the soils, adding organic soil amendments to neutralize the soil. With a lower pH, nutrients from the fertilizer were available for plant root uptake, creating a successful diet for the roses to thrive.

Do it yourself or come to us
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting your soil tested before putting down fertilizer. In Maryland, we’re fortunate to have very responsive county extension services whose labs will do a thorough analysis of your soil samples for a small fee on a 4 to 5-day turnaround.  If you don’t have the time to collect samples or are unsure of how to do it and how to read the soil report once you get it, then consider Architectural Gardens. We can handle the entire process for you from collecting the samples and sending them in to the county to selecting and administering the right Bay friendly fertilizer, in the right doses, at the right time.  Whatever option you choose, your plantings will thank you.

Top 10 Reasons to Manage your Fall Leaves!

Sustainability begins at home. All of us can make a difference in improving and conserving our natural resources. One of the best ways also happens to be one of the simplest. By engaging in the simple autumn ritual of raking, mulching and removing leaves from the streets, curbs and storm drains, we can significantly help protect the Chesapeake Bay and the ecology of our twelve local watersheds in Anne Arundel County such as the South, Severn, Magothy, and West Rivers. Now that the leaves have mostly fallen, it’s time to get this task out of the way before winter comes. You will discover many benefits beyond the environmental ones.

Here are my top 10 reasons why leaf management should be at the top of your to-do list:

10. Leaves protect shrubs and perennials from extreme temperature changes.
9.  It’s good exercise; raking, moving and mulching gets the heart rate up and fresh air into your lungs.
8.  It’s a family affair, giving you the opportunity to spend quality time with your kids outside.
7. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate leadership: you’ll be surprised to see once you start managing your leaves, your neighbors will follow suit.
6. Leaves cleared from the streets and storm drains prevent injury, accidents and flooding.
5. Leaves that are mulched and managed on site save space in landfills.
4. Your azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons thrive with shredded organic leaf humus.
3. Leaves mowed into the yard enhance clay or sandy soil, add natural fertilizers and introduce beneficial microorganisms to the soil.
2. Each year, tons of falling leaves are blown or washed into our watersheds releasing Nitrogen and consuming Oxygen as they decay, creating dead zones that kill fish and oysters.
1. Managing your leaves is easy, ecological and the right thing to do.

For more information on the environmental benefits of leaf management and sustainable landscape practices for protecting our local rivers, visit the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy at: aawsa.org