Build a Rain Garden: Nature Based Solutions from Schools to Your Home

June 13, 2024

Living in the desert in Arizona, we are no strangers to extreme heat and sparse rainfall. As temperatures rise, so do health concerns. However, we can harness the limited rain the desert provides to build communities resilient to these challenges. One approach to achieving this is through “nature-based solutions,” which leverage natural systems to enhance both community health and watershed vitality. For instance, planting a native tree to shade your AC unit or patio not only increases the efficiency of your cooling system and keeps your patio cooler but also requires minimal water once established and over the life of the tree. Native trees additionally support local ecosystems by providing habitat and food for native insects and wildlife, unlike non-native species.

Implementing nature-based solutions is often cost-effective and straightforward. All it takes is a few hours of your time, a shovel, and some seeds or a small tree. Organizations like Watershed Management Group (WMG) and ASU’s Sustainability Teachers’ Academies have partnered with schools across the Phoenix Valley, empowering students to plan and implement nature-based solutions on their campuses. If you need inspiration for your home or neighborhood, check out this quick Instagram video. It shows how students created shaded, inviting spaces known as rain gardens by utilizing rainwater effectively.

Make a Plan

At these schools, spaces were planned primarily for the benefit of students and staff, but also considered the broader community and ecosystem. Teachers participated in workshops with WMG and ASU staff that covered water harvesting principles and benefits of native plants. Using this knowledge, they developed lesson plans to educate students on creating sustainable landscapes using local water resources—specifically, rainwater from school roofs and grounds. For your home, you can also use greywater for landscape irrigation.

Students then devised plans determining low areas for water to pool and infiltrate, placements for shade trees and shrubs, and elevated areas for walking paths. They also identified where to avoid planting due to utility lines. With a wide array of colorful, native plants to choose from, some students even incorporated native edible varieties.

Las Sendas project
This Rain Garden at Las Sendas Elementary in Mesa was an older playground no longer used by students. Now it’s a walkable natural area for students and a great place for visiting pollinators.

Plant the Water

Once plans were finalized, the digging began. In large spaces, machinery was used to excavate basins where water would pool and sink into the ground. Then, soil was added to areas marked as walking paths and seating areas. Basins were between 6” and 12” deep which allowed water to collect, but not stand for more than a few hours.

In a backyard, you can start on a smaller scale with a shovel, hard rake, and digging bars. For compact soils, a demolition hammer or small jackhammer will make quick work for digging.

This Rain Garden at Patterson Elementary in Mesa used small machinery to excavate basins. Then students provided final grading and planting.

Plant Like Nature

With basins and paths shaped, the  transformation had begun. Students worked with school staff and parents to plant selected native species like Milkweed, Mexican Honeysuckle, and Dalea Bicolor,  to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, bringing vibrant colors to the landscape. Wood Chip mulch was spread around the plants to protect the soil from the intense sun and to nourish the plants. This organic material sets the stage for long-term benefits. Plants help improve soil health and microbes break down the mulch into nutrients during rain events.

A Rain Garden at Clarendon Elementary in Phoenix shows newly planted native species and wood chip mulch.

Learning from Nature

The initial planning and planting are just the beginning. As the rain gardens grow, they provide ongoing educational opportunities for students to observe seasonal changes in plants and identify beneficial native species (versus invasive ones that pop up as weeds). Furthermore, students can monitor rain events and calculate how much rain the garden receives from roof areas and from direct rainfall. These gardens create safer, cooler spaces for students to gather and offer an ongoing connection to nature. The relationship between the students and their natural environment becomes mutually beneficial, enhancing both the school community and the urban ecosystem.

By adopting nature-based solutions, we can make our homes and desert communities more livable, sustainable, and connected to the natural world. These efforts demonstrate that even in a harsh environment, thoughtful planning and simple actions can lead to significant, long-lasting positive impacts.

Get Involved

Find pamphlets and videos at the Watershed Management Group website.

Check out our Build Your Own Basin page to learn to Build Your Own Basin and create a rain garden. You’ll find helpful pamphlets on installation, a Rain Garden Care Handbook, and how-to videos.

Stay up to date with WMG by signing up for our Valley Action Bulletin and following us on Instagram @watershed_mg.

You can also learn more about rain gardens on our Water Harvesting info page.

Water – Use It Wisely Editors Note: The City of Mesa is offering $1,000 to $5,000 mini-grants to youth. Groups of 3 or more applicants, the majority being between the ages of 15-24 years old, can apply. Deadline to apply is July 31, 2024. Learn more about this Youth Climate Action Fund.

Charlie Alcorn is a Program Manager and Educator at Watershed Management Group. He runs projects in Tucson and the Phoenix Valley that use local water to make neighborhoods cooler and healthier. WMG offers free classes on rainwater harvesting, native plants, and other sustainable living practices for desert dwellers. Check out upcoming classes at