rain chainQ: My partner and I are about to kick off a major overhaul of our backyard and garden area, and since neither of us possesses anything close to what could be considered horticultural know-how, we brought on a landscape designer to help out. During our first consultation, more than once he mentioned “rain chains” and how great they’d look in our outdoor space. Neither my partner nor I really knew what he meant and we were too sheepish to ask since he was throwing out the term rather nonchalantly like we’d know what he was talking about. So, here I am asking you: What exactly is a rain chain and how could one benefit our garden redesign?

A: Although your landscape designer is prone to throwing out terms his clients don’t quite understand, I’d say he’s a keeper: A rain chain or two is a fantastic idea. Huge in Japan where they’re known as kusari doi (translation: “chain-gutter”) and adorn both private homes and temples, you may have seen these decorative-but-also-super-functional downspout alternatives around before but mistaken them for an intense set of wind chimes or some sort of folksy outdoor sculpture.

Rain chains are easy to install. Typically, they’re attached to gutters or directly to the eaves of a building (most come with attachment kits), and like plastic downspouts, they help to divert rainwater runoff and reduce soil erosion outside of your home. But unlike downspouts, they’re pretty to look at — most are constructed from long-lasting copper and age with that desirable, classic green patina — and emit a soothing, stress-relieving sound as water cascades down the chain, from the gutter down to the ground. So if you’re looking to give your garden some Zen-like ambiance, rain chains are the way to go ... they’re certainly cheaper than piping in new age-y music or installing a koi pond. 

Perhaps the real advantage to rain chains, in addition to the fact that they’re aesthetically pleasing and emit a noise that’s ideal for alfresco meditation sessions, is that when used in the traditional Japanese manner, they direct runoff straight into a rainwater catchment device like a rain barrel or a large decorative basin. You can certainly use a rain chain sans rain barrel and opt to divert the water away from your home or straight into a planting area, but from what I gather the two usually go hand-in-hand. If you don’t already use a rain barrel for irrigation purposes, I’d certainly look into it — have a chat with Mr. Landscape Designer to get his thoughts — before investing in a rain chain.

You’d think that since rain chains aren’t exactly the norm in North America they’d be difficult to find. This isn’t the case at all, with dedicated rain chain-centric retailers like Rain Chains Direct and Rain Chain World offering a wide array of rain chains and rain chain accessories. Target also sells a few varieties, as does online eco-gardening supply store Clean Air Gardening. I’m guessing your local brick and mortar gardening center or home improvement store might have ‘em too. Or, you can save a few bucks and make one yourself.

Perhaps the most difficult part of rain chain ownership, if there is one, is settling on a design. At their most simple, rain chains consist of a strand of traditional chains or large loops but can also incorporate a touch of whimsy with cups/funnels in the shape of things like watering cans, flowers and umbrellas. And in addition to copper, you can find rain chains made from materials like stainless steel or bamboo. It all depends on the vibe — old world elegance, Asian minimalist or country cutesy — you’re going for out back.

So there you have it. The next time your landscape designer rolls around feel free to impress him with your vast knowledge of kusari doi. And please, use that term liberally. You’ll have him bowing at your feet. 

Photo: chaim zvi/Flickr; MNN homepage photo: contraption/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

What are rain chains?
What exactly is a rain chain and how could one benefit our garden redesign?