Discover the power of plants. Landscaping features like rain gardens, native plants, and trees catch and soak up polluted stormwater runoff.

Native plants in a rain garden
Native plants in a rain garden. Credit: K. Paine.

Plants and trees that are native to Michigan boost your landscape’s ability to absorb and infiltrate polluted runoff. That’s because their deep thirsty roots are much better at keeping water clean than the shallow roots of turf grass. Using native plants and trees in a rain garden amplifies their clean water power.

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Plants prevent water pollution

Native plants, shrubs and trees are clean water machines. Their leaves and bark catch falling rain and hold it for evaporation or for gradual release to the ground below. Underground, their deep extensive root systems create channels in the soil—allowing rainwater to soak in. The water makes its way to groundwater aquifers or is taken up for use by the plants themselves.

Native Plant Benefits

Improve water quality. The deep root systems of native plants help absorb and filter polluted runoff before it gets into rivers and lakes.

Create wildlife habitat. Native plants provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies and other wildlife that rely on native plants for their survival.

Save water, energy and money. Native plants are adapted to our local soils and climate and require minimal water and fertilizers.

Restore biodiversity. By planting native plants we preserve Michigan’s botanical and biological heritage.

Help mitigate climate change. Native plants store carbon in their roots, removing it from the atmosphere.

Using Native Plants

If you live in an urban or suburban neighborhood, use native plants to create attractive, low-maintenance garden borders around your lawn or use them on a steep slope or berm where mowing is a challenge.

If your home is on a lake, river or stream, create a native plant buffer along the shoreline. Keep the buffer at least 20 feet wide, with narrow access paths winding down to the water.

Put your native plants to work in a rain garden! They are designed specifically to catch and slowly soak in runoff. Downspouts and diverters can direct runoff from hard surfaces like rooftops and sidewalks straight into the garden, thus preventing it from reaching nearby storm drains and the Huron River.

Create a native plant pollinator garden that helps revive the health of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators. Learn about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

Deep Roots at Work in Your Yard

Native plants can thrive on rainwater and generally don’t need fertilizing. Their resilience is due in large part to their massive root systems. Because the roots reach deep into the soil—in some cases, as far down as 15 feet—the plants can access water even during dry times. New root growth reduces soil compaction, and the die-off of old roots adds humus and nutrients to the soil.

Attractive Flowers Beautify

Using native plants, you can create a stunning garden that blooms all season long. Native plants offer a unique pallet of color, texture, and shape, plus a wide variety of heights and sizes. Attractive, well-placed native plants enhance your garden and property.

Habitat for Bees, Birds and Butterflies

Native flowering plants and trees sustain pollinators with nutrient rich nectar and pollen. Pollinators are responsible for 1 out of 3 bites of food we take each day, and yet they are at a critical point in their own survival. Their recent decline is for many reasons. We know for certain, however, that more nectar and pollen sources provided by more native plants will help improve pollinator health and numbers.

Familiar Native Plants

Perennials Shrubs Trees Ferns
Black-eyed Susan Winterberry Musclewood Lady fern
Butterfly milkweed Arrowwood viburnum Northern White Cedar Christmas fern
Yellow coneflower Red twig dogwood Redbud Maidenhair fern
Wild geranium Pussy willow Bur Oak Ostrich fern

Where to Purchase Native Plants

These plant nurseries specialize in native plants. Check websites carefully. Many are open by appointment only, some have public sale days, some sell at farmers markets, some take online orders.

BetterFinds Native Plants, Saginaw

Designs By Nature, Laingsburg

East Michigan Native Plants, Durand

Feral Flora, Ann Arbor Area

Hidden Savanna Nursery, Kalamazoo

Michiganense Natives, Northville

Michigan Wildflower Farm, Portland

Native Connections, Kalamazoo (native seed for restoration and conservation)

Native Plant Nursery, Ann Arbor, (734) 904-0061

New Leaf Native Plant Nursery, Ypsilanti

Plants for Ecology, Troy

Plants With Purpose, Manchester, (734) 223-3242

Sideoats Farm & Native Nursery, Pinckney

Washtenaw Conservation District, holds spring and fall native plant and tree sales and hosts the Native Plant Expo in early June.

Wildtype Native Plant Nursery, Mason (plants and native seed for restoration)

Ypsilanti Native Plant Nursery, Ypsilanti

Because plants vary from region to region, it is best to use stock from your local area or the next closest geographic region. Collecting plants in the wild can devastate plant populations. Ethical native plant producers propagate their plants at the nursery by plant division, from cuttings or from seed. When purchasing native plants, be sure to confirm the source.

Native Plant Resources

Wild Ones Native Garden Designs. Practical, educationally sound information on native landscaping for first time native plant gardeners.

Native Plant Information Network. Online database of more than 2,900 native plant species for North America, with color photos, growing information, and more.

Wildflower Association of Michigan. Annual 2-day conference and grant program to develop and enhance native plant gardens.

Michigan State University, Department of Entomology, Native Plants and Ecosystem Services. Getting started guides, plant search tool, plant lists, videos, webinars and more with a focus on plant attractiveness to pollinators.

Michiganflora.net. Searchable database of over 2,700 Michigan native plants with photos from the University of Michigan Herbarium. The best way to find out if a plant is native to Michigan!

Native Plants Defined

Plants that are “native” have evolved in a particular region over hundreds of thousands of years. They have adapted to the soil conditions, moisture conditions and weather conditions of that region.

Native plants occur in communities, that is, they have evolved together with other plants and animals. As a result, a community of native plants provides food and habitat for a variety of native wildlife species such as songbirds, hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and small wildlife. As the seasons change, you will enjoy watching a host of wildlife in your garden.

Cultivating native plants helps protect the splendid biodiversity of our area. Biodiversity—a variety of different species—is important to the health of the ecosystem. Diverse plant populations are less susceptible to devastation by disease, and they support a wider range of wildlife.

From Non-Native into Invasive

Non-native plants, also called exotic species, are transplanted from other places. They evolved elsewhere; they were moved here, and now they are causing trouble. In Southeast Michigan, sources of non-native plants include both other continents (Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia) as well as other ecosystem areas of the United States.

An invasive species is one that is non-native and whose introduction causes harm or is likely to cause harm to Michigan’s economy, environment, or human health. Invasive plants take over an ecosystem and can have devastating effects on other plant populations.

Introduction of non-native plants into our landscape has been both accidental and deliberate. Purple loosestrife, for example, was introduced from Europe in the 1800’s in ship ballast and as a medicinal herb and ornamental plant. It quickly spread and is now crowding out the native species that provide food for aquatic creatures in 42 states. Purple loosestrife is a restricted invasive species in Michigan. When an invasive species is “restricted” that means that it is unlawful to possess, introduce, import, sell or offer it for sale as a live organism, except under certain circumstances.

Examples of Invasive Plant Species in Southeast Michigan

THESE SHOULD NEVER BE PLANTED!

Norway maple (acer plantanoides)

Autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata)

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica, Rhamnus frangula)

Privet (Ligustrum vulare)

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica, Lonicera maackii, Lonicera tatarica)

Phragmites (Phragmites australis)

Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)

Knotweed (Fallopia sachalinensis, Fallopia japonica)

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)

Learn more about invasive plant species at Michigan.gov/invasives.

Put plants to work in a rain garden

Rain gardens are landscape beds designed to catch and slowly soak up rainwater runoff. These gardens are shaped like shallow saucers-to catch a “puddle” of water. Their soil is amended with compost and planted with native plants that thrive in periods of wet and dry conditions. Rooftop downspouts can direct rainwater straight into the garden, where it soaks in. Water from other hard surfaces like sidewalks and driveways can also be directed to the garden. The rain garden protects nearby storm drains from being overwhelmed by runoff in big rains. It also protects the Huron River from erosion and pollution.

Rain gardens protect the Huron River and its creeks from polluted runoff, reduce erosion and flooding, and create habitat for pollinators.

How does a rain garden work?

The shape of a rain garden helps it collect and store runoff while it slowly soaks into the ground. A properly sized rain garden can collect most of the 5,000 gallons of runoff from a 1-inch rainstorm that flows from the roof, driveway, patio and even the lawn of a modest 1,500 square foot home.

Rain gardens slow the flow of runoff. Their deep-rooted native plants hold the soil in place and create channels that allow water to soak in. Plant leaves and stems catch falling rain, letting it evaporate.

Rain gardens remove pollutants in runoff. Sunlight and soil destroy harmful bacteria and viruses. Beneficial bacteria in soil eliminates petroleum. Soil and mulch adsorb heavy metals. Plants take up nitrogen and phosphorus.

Rain Garden Benefits

  • The native plants in rain gardens are adapted to local conditions and can thrive in wet and dry periods.
  • Rain gardens beautify your property and your neighborhood. You choose the design—manicured formal garden or a more natural look.
  • They help keep water away from your home’s foundation.
  • They reduce flooding by holding and soaking in runoff.
  • They increase the amount of rain that filters into the ground which recharges local and regional drinking water aquifers.
  • They improve habitat with native plants that attract and support bees, butterflies, birds and other beneficial insects.

Do-It-Yourself Rain Garden Resources

Rain gardens must be thoughtfully sited and designed. Follow the guidelines offered by these DIY resources on where to put it, how big to make it, how deep to dig it and what kinds of soils, slope, and plants will best capture runoff.

Washtenaw County’s Rain Garden Handbook (PDF) covers everything from the how-to site and design a rain garden to top performing native plants and their suppliers and a list of certified contractors who can help if you want it. There are sample plans and checklists for design and construction.

Landscaping for Water Quality (PDF) from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is a 50-page guide on rain gardens. It provides how-to information and includes garden designs and an extensive native plant list.

Rain Gardens, A guide for homeowners and landscapers (PDF) from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It offers tips for sizing, siting, constructing, planting, and maintaining rain gardens and includes a recommended plant list.

Become A Master Rain Gardener

Washtenaw County’s Master Rain Gardener Program offers FREE on-line self-paced instructional classes where you will learn how to design and install your own rain garden. Earn your certificate by taking the class and building a rain garden.

Friends of the Rouge Master Rain Gardener Training is modeled on Washtenaw County’s program and held seasonally.

The Master Rain Gardeners Facebook Public Group is for people building rain gardens in Southeast Michigan to share their work and post their homework if they are taking the Master Rain Gardener classes. Use it to get ideas and resources, ask questions, and brag once you have installed your rain garden!

Find Contractor Help

These local landscaping contractors are certified Master Rain Gardeners (Washtenaw County’s Program).

Frequently Asked Rain Garden Questions

Won’t a rain garden create standing water or a pond that will increase mosquitos?

No. A rain garden IS NOT a pond. A properly designed rain garden will hold water less than 24 hours after a storm. Mosquitos need a lot more time in water than that to develop from an egg into an adult. The mosquito lifecycle typically takes up to two weeks, but depending on conditions, it can range from 4 days to up to a month. The eggs that dry out die, so rain gardens actually reduce the mosquito population!

Will it be expensive or difficult to install or maintain a rain garden at my house?

Digging a rain garden takes some time and energy to dig it yourself, or money to hire someone to dig it for you. Once the shallow depression (anywhere from 3-8 inches) is dug for the rain garden, it won’t be any more expensive than planting other landscaped areas in your yard. Most of the recommended plants can be purchased from local nurseries that produce native plants, and once established, you maintain them just like other perennials in your yard.

Do rain gardens require a lot of maintenance?

Plants in a rain garden require one inch of water per week (which includes rain) until they are established. Once they are established, rain gardens benefit from regular maintenance like other gardens—some watering and weeding in the first 2 years, thinning aggressive plants, or replanting bare areas.

Trees tame stormwater

Trees soak up polluted stormwater with their roots and intercept rainwater in their canopies. They filter pollution such as pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste out of runoff; and when planted near water, they shade the river and its streams, keeping them cool.

Every tree plays an important role in reducing air pollution and controlling destructive stormwater runoff. The leaves and bark of a tree retain a surprising amount of water, allowing some of it to evaporate and some to more slowly reach the ground. Depending on the size and species, a single tree can store 100 gallons or more.

Calculate your tree’s benefits. Learn how much stormwater your tree will intercept and how much carbon dioxide it will store each year! When multiplied by the number of trees in a community, this interception and redistribution can be significant. It is estimated that an urban forest can reduce annual runoff by up to seven percent.

Trees planted along streams and on slopes prevent erosion and form a valuable buffer system with strips of vegetation along streams and rivers, which filter pollutants, and slow and cool down runoff. The buffer zone becomes even more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity rainfall in the watershed.

If you are planting trees on your property, find out which tree species will be healthy in the long-run by checking out our Tree Resilience Toolkit, which reviews climate change impacts on tree species of the Huron River watershed.

For how to select and plant trees, check out the Michigan Department of Natural Resources guide for Tree and Shrub Planting.

Discover the trees of the watershed in the Huron River Watershed 2021 Community Calendar to learn more about native tree species.

Rain barrels slow the stormwater flow

Rain barrels collect runoff from rooftops and slow the rapid flow of water that enters the Huron River system during heavy rains, helping to prevent volatile fluctuations that cause erosion and contribute to flooding.

You Save Water and Money! Watering your garden and lawn during the summer can take up to 40% of your household water use. Using water from your rain barrel is free!

Rain Barrel Resources

Rain Barrel Information from the Ecology Action Center

Important Maintenance Components from the Low Impact Design Center, Inc.

Tips & Maintenance Information from the City of Duluth and Lake Superior

Build Your Own Rain Barrel Instructions from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

HRWC’s Rain Barrel Tips teach you how to support, use overflow spouts, store for the winter, prevent mosquitos and more, for the model we sold 2007-2009.

Stormwater Rates and Credit System for Rain Barrels from the City of Ann Arbor

Purchase a Rain Barrel

Downtown Home & Garden, Ann Arbor. In stock and by special order, call ahead.

Washtenaw County Conservation District, Scio Township. Places monthly orders for pick up.

Friends of the Rouge, Plymouth. Order online and pick up at pre-order sales events.

RainBarrelUSA. Online sales for pickup in Waxhaw, North Carolina or order through Wayfair.com to have it shipped. Carries the model sold by HRWC 2007-2009.

Create Demand for Rain Barrels

We encourage all watershed residents to use rain barrels and know that they are not as easy to find as we would like. Ask your local hardware retailer to offer them for sale and let them know you’ll be the first buyer.

Know of a good source for rain barrels? Using a rain barrel and have some good suggestions? Send us an e-mail.

This information is provided with support from the Middle Huron Partners and the Livingston Watershed Advisory Group, working together to reduce stormwater pollution in the Huron River watershed.