What is a rain chain? Find out how to use these gutter chains in your garden

Discover the decorative alternative to downpipes that channels water to your garden

rain chains for harvesting rainwater in the garden
(Image credit: Alamy)

You may have seen a metal chain or ornamental links hanging from a gutter and wondered what they do. Known as rain chains, they're not simply decoration, although they do add a visual and auditory dimension to the garden that can enhance your experience of being in your backyard. 

In fact, rain chains serve the vital function of collecting rain water from the roof and gutters and channelling it to where it is most needed in the garden. A rain chain might divert rain water to a water butt, into a bed of moisture-loving plants, or to the ground where it can be used to replenish the water table.

If you're looking for garden ideas that tackle drought or take a more climate-friendly approach to gardening – such as a rain garden – then why not include a rain chain as part of your design?

What is a rain chain – and how to get the most from it

rain chains for harvesting rainwater in the garden

(Image credit: Alamy)

'Rain chains may be trending in modern gardens, but they were used in ancient Japan as a means to collect rain water – and you can still find them in Japanese homes and gardens today,' explains Homes & Gardens gardening writer, Rachel Crow. 

'Known in Japan as 'kusari doi', which means rain gutter, they are attached to the eaves or gutters of a house instead of a downpipe. When it rains, the water gently flows down the rain chain to the bottom, where it can be collected in a barrel or decorative water feature, or channelled into the garden to irrigate the flower beds.'

Rain chains can be an integral part of sustainable garden ideas as they make collecting water easy. Find out how to install your own and start collecting rain water today.

Rain chains and rain gardens

rain chains for harvesting rainwater in the garden

(Image credit: Alamy)

A rain garden is designed to collect rain water and divert it back into the soil – avoiding the run off and wastage that comes from having too many impermeable surfaces in your yard. When rain water goes directly into drainage systems, it can contribute to flooding.

'As well as being sustainable and beneficial for the environment, rain gardens make functional spaces attractive,' explains award-winning garden designer Matt Keightley in the RHS book, Your Wellbeing Garden (opens in new tab).

It begins with your driveway design, garden landscaping ideas, and patio ideas – any part of your front or backyard that would usually feature a lot of hard landscaping.

'Create an area that directs rainwater through the soil and back into the water table. Include beds of moisture-loving perennials around paved surfaces and plant groundcovers and creeping perennials between paving stones to allow rainwater to drain through the soil.

'A rain chain is an efficient way to direct water into a butt, and you can use the captured rainwater to water plants.'

How to use a rain chain to water flower beds

rain chains for harvesting rainwater in the garden

(Image credit: Alamy)

A rain chain should be placed at the corner of gutter, where a downpipe would usually be. 'That might be on the eaves of your house, on your shed or a garden building, or on your garage,' suggests Rachel Crow.

Consider what will happen to the rainwater that runs down the rain chain when it reaches the bottom.

'You might want let the rain chain reach the flower bed, especially if the roof line or eaves shelter the ground beside the house from the rain. This way, you're effectively irrigating the bed directly each time it rains,' says Rachel.

Dig a small depression in the ground where the rain chain meets the soil, and line this with stones or pebbles, which will prevent the area becoming waterlogged. You can plant moisture-loving plants in and around the hole, with drought-resistant plants further away, where the rainwater is less likely to penetrate.

Stake the rain chain to the ground so it doesn't fly around and cause damage in high winds.

Using a rain chain to collect rainwater

rain chain collecting water in decorative urn

(Image credit: Alamy)

Alternatively, you can use the rain chain to harvest rainwater, letting it drip into a barrel or water butt, or even into a fountain or water feature.

'If you let the rain chain dangle just above the top of the barrel, you'll be able to hear the sound of the water as it drips into the barrel, which can add a lovely sensory element to your garden,' Rachel says.

What are rain chains made from?

rain chains for harvesting rainwater in the garden

(Image credit: Alamy)

A rain chain can be as simple as a salvaged heavy chair. This look works well when you're thinking of rustic, decorative features to complement country garden ideas.

Any water-resistant linked rings can be used to create a rain chain, ranging from simple metal shower curtain rings to ring pulls from drinks cans connected with flexible wire. For light materials like this, you'll need to thread a length of stiff wire through the chain once connected to stiffen the rain chain, making it easy to position.

You can also buy decorative rain chains, made from ornamental links, cups and shaped metal, which add an element of design to their function.

Andrea has been immersed in the world of homes, interiors and lifestyle since her first job in journalism, on Ideal Home. She went from women's magazine Options to Frank. From there it was on to the launch of Red magazine, where she stayed for 10 years and became Assistant Editor. She then shifted into freelancing, and spent 14 years writing for everyone from The Telegraph to The Sunday Times, Livingetc, Stylist and Woman & Home. She was then offered the job as Editor on Country Homes & Interiors, and now combines that role with writing for sister title homesandgardens.com.