I lay in bed this morning – the end of December – with both windows wide open, almost too mild for a cover of any kind and only the sound of the flood lapping against the walls of the house disturbing the dark. It had all the velvet warmth of a July night. It is not just a hard rain that is gonna fall but a warm one as well.

I mentioned last week the need to plant trees, shrubs and hedging to counter the effects of global warming. But it makes sense to choose carefully from plants that are going to relish these enforced conditions. The biggest lesson that I have learnt in gardening is not to fight the soil or the climate but to plant intelligently to make the most of them. It is very elementary common sense but it always amazes me how far people will go to buck nature. The clever thing to do is to go with the flow.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot improve the condition of your soil. Although I said last week that we should all seriously consider giving up regular digging to conserve the carbon in the soil, it is sensible to create the best soil structure that is feasible before establishing a regime that foregoes cultivation. So, heavy clay must have lots of organic matter dug into it, as well as horticultural grit or sharp sand. This will not make the soil different in any real sense or change its wetness, but it will open the soil out and make it easier for roots to work through it and for water to drain. That can make a huge difference to the health and range of what you can grow in the garden.

Likewise, very sandy soil needs masses of organic material added to it to beef it up a bit so that water is retained a little longer, giving roots more chance to access it. It will also let more oxygen in because compost will stop the light soil ‘slumping’ and closing up. Once the best soil structure that your soil can have is established, then an annual layer of compost about 3in deep should be enough to sustain it (as long as you avoid treading on it).

This done, you need to choose your plants wisely from those that will thrive in wet – and are adapted to what we have grown to think of as ‘our’ climate. Any plant that has to cope with waterlogging is adapted to living with a very low level of oxygen. The roots of a normal plant will deteriorate fast if saturated. Anyone who has ever kept a pot plant knows this only too well. It is perfectly possible to drown plants and some are far more sensitive to waterlogging than others.

In my own experience, the Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and thyme are particularly ill-equipped to sit in wet winter ground – even though until a few years ago many people were responding to the fears of global warming by recommending an increase in Mediterranean plants. The first signs of a waterlogged plant will be a yellow or orange tint to the leaves, and the plant will wilt as though suffering from drought. We are all used to bog plants, such as hostas, rheums and ligularias, that have adapted to life on the margins of oxygenation, but woody plants rarely get mentioned in the same bracket.

From my own experience in my garden, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) copes with wet ground very well, making a lusty and healthy hedge even in the very wettest part of our generally very wet garden. I would go so far as to say that hornbeam is only really happy in heavy, wettish ground. Hornbeam is the best of all deciduous garden hedges. It grows fast yet only needs clipping once a year, holds its leaves through winter, is a wonderful windbreak and provides complete privacy in summer. With the climate shifting, I would consider planting hornbeam rather than beech.

There isn’t really an evergreen hedge that prefers damp conditions. Yew hates sitting in wet and it is always worth putting extra drainage beneath a young yew hedge. Certainly, our young yew plants just recover enough during the summer to cope with the trauma of a wet winter all over again. Although it is easy to think of holly as needing dry soil because of the intense shade it casts creating a very dry area around it, it actually prefers a good water supply. Thuja is not bad – if you like that sort of thing. There are two species that are used for hedging, Thuja occidentalis (the white cedar) and T plicata (Western red cedar). The Western red cedar is a better plant and makes a magnificent tree, but T occidentalis is very good at coping with poor drainage and must be kept moist whatever the soil. It will cope with much colder conditions than its Pacific coast relative, which gets confusing because global warming will, in principle, suit the red cedar. For me the choice is academic – I would plant neither.

Around here there is a lot of dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) in the roadside hedgerows. It likes the heavy, wet clay. Dogwood hedges are rarely planted, so are a pretty good indicator of an old hedge (‘fourth or fifth species in hedges of Tudor age,’ according to Oliver Rackham, which can be translated as one of at least five species of a hedge that is likely to be at least 500 years old). It looks very good, especially in autumn when the leaves turn a deep plum colour. It will not clip into a tight shape but would be a good choice for an informal hedge for wet, although I would choose C alba and enjoy the brightness of its bare winter stems.

Lots of us grow dogwood as a shrub and increasingly I like a garden that uses shrubs as an important part of its understorey. Think of a small garden, planted almost entirely with a range of shrubs interplanted with bulbs, annuals, herbaceous plants, climbers and a few standard trees. A carefully contrived wood in fact, which is pretty much what any garden amounts to. Of the shrubs that do best in wet, some of the cut-leaf elders, such as Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’, are lovely, with intense colouring, especially in spring. All willows do well and can be coppiced hard to control their growth. Bamboos love global warming, but they must have shelter from the wind to be really happy.

If you have space to plant trees – and most gardens can take a small tree or two, or three – then alders love the wet. There has been a fungus quietly killing off the common alder ( Alnus glutinosa ) which, in truth, can be a little dull, but the Italian alder ( A cordata ) is a fabulous tree, with practically evergreen leaves. I planted a row of 18in saplings eight years ago and they are now 30ft tall. If you have a big garden with a lake that cries out for adornment, then try a swamp cypress ( Taxodium distichum ). Never having had the necessary lake I have not grown one, but you can see some marvellous specimens at Sheffield Park near Uckfield in East Sussex.

My roots: A week in Monty’s garden

My son Tommy came up with a bright idea the other day while we were putting up tomshed mark 2. Tom’s first shed had been the heart, soul and workshop of the domestic Tom. I suspect that, in a very practical and metaphysical way, he gathered it all up and took it about with him when he was not at home, too, and what we were left with, tucked into a corner of the yard, was a chimera, a hologram of the real, internalised thing.

However, for his birthday, just before Christmas, he got a bigger shed. This is both a rite of passage thing (he is now 10, after all) and more a space thing. There is all that power equipment to fit in, all these inventions to make (and these things get made, and get made well). But. The first shed was not to be touched. In the end, a position butting on to the potting shed was chosen – it could be reached via the illumination of outside lights (vital), was near power (essential), and largely out of sight (important to some of us).

In the process of putting up tomshed mark 2, Tom had an idea. Why didn’t we make the potting shed into the workshop and the workshop into the potting shed? There was, of course, a motive for this – he wanted his shed to butt on to a bigger version of itself rather than a boring potting shed. But it was a very good notion, and I have now been putting the plan into action.

My outhouses – potting shed, tool shed and workshop – are an essential part of my garden. The former potting shed was an old stable with a corrugated roof and a sloping floor – good for letting the horse muck drain but bad for standing on while pricking out dozens of plants. The new space is bigger, nicer – brick walls, brick floor and nearer the house. It is further from the greenhouse, but not much, and closer to the house.

Moving all the pots, the potting bench and the paraphernalia of potting – bags of compost, leaf mould, sieves, trowels, seeds, labels, dibbers, liquid seaweed, watering can and the wind-up radio – is a wonderful way of setting the garden up for the coming year. It even feels like real gardening.

The new potting shed has room to make potting compost with a shovel on the floor – a huge advantage – and the loam, garden compost and sharp sand all get sieved on to the bricks, mixed up and then put into bags. It is a recipe, a formula. It’s a game. I’m playing in my shed and Tom is making proper stuff in his.

Your roots: Things to plant whatever the weather

If you are planting a bare-root tree or shrub into very wet ground, and for some reason it must be done before conditions can get better, put a bag of potting compost around the roots so that it can work in around them all. Otherwise there is a high chance that you will leave gaps which will then fill up with water. Better than using bought compost is your own dried and stored loam, but you have to be very smugly organised for that.

Trees for wet conditions

Shrubs for wet conditions

Elder, dogwood, guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), poplar, alder, willow, amelanchier, bamboos and clethra.

I have recently moved to a smaller home and down one side and along the back of the property the soil stays soggy and wet. Right now everything is dead and overgrown and I want to clear it all out. What plants will tolerate “wet feet?” I haven’t got much time to spend in the garden, so I am looking for something low maintenance.

You would be surprised at the number of plants that you can grow in areas with poor drainage. Some of these will actually grow in standing water. I regularly add pots of cannas, yellow flag iris and calla lilies to the garden pool in my fountain garden.

If you are looking for low maintenance I suggest you try a combination of trees and shrubs with a few perennials mixed in to add bloom and texture.

Here is a short list of plants that will tolerate “wet feet.”


Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) – This deciduous holly produces bright red berries in winter. Can be either a small tree or large shrub. Zones 5 – 9. 20′ tall x 15′ wide.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) – Also known as a Swamp maple, this tree has brilliant fall foliage. I have 2 ‘Red Sunset’ planted at the front entrance to my garden. Zones 3 – 9. Height and width vary with cultivar.

River Birch (Betula nigra) – This tree has interesting bark and brilliant yellow fall foliage. Zones 4 – 9. 60′ tall x 40′ wide.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) – A vigorous grower, give this tree plenty of room mature. Attractive, mottled bark. Zones 5 – 8. 80′ tall x 70′ wide.

Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) – Perhaps the best known water tolerant tree. Graceful weeping branches. Zones 6 – 9. 40′ tall x 40′ wide. Roots tend to be invasive.


Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) – This is one of my favorite accent shrubs. Candle like blooms appear in midsummer. Thrives in all but the most poorly drained soils. Zones 5 – 9. 10′ tall x 15′ wide.

Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum) – In late spring and early summer this native American shrub produces fragrant star shaped flowers. Moist but well drained soil. Zones 7 – 9. 8′ tall x 8′ wide.

Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) – This is a great shrub because of its bright red stems. I like to use it in my winter container designs. Tolerates wet soils. Zones 2 – 8. 6′ tall x 12′ wide.

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) – The sweet scent produced by the flowers on this shrub make it a must have for any fragrant garden. Moist but well drained soil. Zones 3 – 9. 8′ tall x 8′ wide.


Astilbe (Astilbe simplicifolia) – One of my favorite astilbes is ‘Sprite’ because of its unique airy, shell-pink flowers and dark, bronze green foliage. Prefers moist, humus rich roil. Zones 4 – 8.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – I like this plant because the bees and the hummingbirds find it so attractive. Blooms for an extended period. My favorite is ‘Marshall’s Delight’ because of its clear pink flowers and resistance to powdery mildew. Zones 4 – 9.

Calla Lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) – The flowers produced by these summer bulbs remind me of fabric from the 1940s. I grow ‘Green Goddess’ in 1 gallon black nursery pots in my garden pool. Zones 8 – 10.

Canna – Another great plant for growing in standing water. ‘Black Knight’ always has a place in my summer garden because of its deep red foliage. It looks great when planted with purple fountain grass. Zones 8 – 11.

Elephant’s Ear (Colocasia esculenta) – These fun summer bulbs are an easy and quick way to add height and texture to your garden. ‘Black Magic’ is a deep purple, almost black variety. Tolerates fairly wet soils. Zones 8 – 11

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) – I was surprised and delighted to find this native American flower growing in the English garden of Arley. Prefers moist but well drained soils. Grows up to 7′ tall. Zones 3 – 9.

Iris – Many iris are tolerant of soggy soil conditions. Japanese iris, Siberian iris and yellow flag iris are a few that I grow in my garden.

Mint (Mentha) – Mint is a rampant grower that easily runs out of control. This is what also makes it perfect for soggy areas of the garden where nothing else will survive. To limit its spread it can be grown in containers with the bottoms cut out and buried in the ground.

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) – This fern does particularly well in poorly drained areas. Will tolerate full sun as long as ample moisture is available. Its regal stature, growing to 6′ tall, makes it a winner for the garden. Zones 4 – 9.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) – I have any area in my garden where the irrigation system floods on a regular basis. The spiderwort loves it there. One of my favorites is ‘Innocence’. It’s pure white flowers light up shady areas from summer until fall. Zones 5 – 9.

Trees and Shrubs for Wet Soils

Many trees and shrubs thrive in Iowa’s fertile, well-drained soils. Most trees and shrubs, however, don’t like wet soils. Fortunately, there are plants that tolerate wet soils better than others. The following trees and shrubs are good choices for wet sites.

The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is commonly found along the banks of rivers and streams throughout Iowa. It is one of our largest native trees, growing up to 100 feet tall. Silver maples have been widely planted in the past because they transplant well, grow fast, and adapt to a wide range of site and soil conditions. Unfortunately, silver maples are weak-wooded trees. They often become liabilities in home landscapes because of their tendency to break apart in ice and windstorms. While the silver maple is a poor choice for the home landscape, it is suitable for windbreaks and natural areas.

River birch (Betula nigra) tolerates heat and drought better than the white-barked birches. It is also resistant to the bronze birch borer. The river birch is native to much of the eastern third of Iowa. It is typically found in moist to wet areas along rivers, hence the common name river birch. The exfoliating bark varies from gray-brown to reddish brown. The cultivar ‘Heritage’ has a salmon-white bark. River birches are often planted as multi-stemmed specimens or “clumps.” It grows 50 to 60 feet tall. River birches perform best in acid soils. Their foliage often turns a sickly yellow-green in alkaline soils.

The American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is native to woodlands in eastern Iowa. It is noted for its hard, tough wood. The American hornbeam is also referred to as ironwood, musclewood, and blue beech. The small, shrubby tree grows slowly to a height of 20 to 30 feet. It does well in heavy shade and wet soils, but will tolerate sunnier and drier sites. In the fall, the foliage turns yellow to orange red.

Another large, native tree is the hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). Though it can be found in a wide range of habitats, it is most often found in the floodplains of rivers and streams. Although hackberries don’t possess any outstanding ornamental feature, they are adaptable. They tolerate acid or alkaline soils, wet or dry sites, and harsh urban conditions. Hackberries usually grow 50 to 60 feet tall, but can grow 100 feet tall.

The green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is one of our most common native trees. It is also widely planted because of its adaptability and fast growth rate. The green ash grows well in both wet and dry soils. Its mature height is approximately 50 to 60 feet tall. Unfortunately, it is weak-wooded and susceptible to storm damage. Seedless cultivars, such as ‘Patmore’ and ‘Bergeson,’ are preferred for home landscapes. Another excellent cultivar is ‘Summit.’ ‘Summit’ has an upright growth habit, but does produce a few seeds.

One of our most distinctive native trees is the sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Its large maple-like leaves, persistent seedballs, exfoliating bark, and huge size make it easy to identify. The sycamore is not a tree for a small yard as it may eventually reach a height of 75 to 100 feet. It is best suited to parks and other large open areas. Anthracnose (a fungal disease) is a problem in cool, wet springs. Severe anthracnose infestations cause heavy leaf drop in late spring.

Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) is a large, slow growing oak which may eventually attain a height and spread of 60 feet. While difficult to locate in nurseries, it is sturdy, drought tolerant, and makes a handsome shade tree. The swamp white oak performs best in moist, acid soils.

Originally found only in southeastern Iowa, the pin oak (Quercus palustris) has been widely planted across the state because of its pyramidal habit and ease of transplanting. Unfortunately, iron chlorosis is a serious problem in alkaline soils. Chlorotic foliage is a sickly yellow-green. The pin oak is not a good street tree because of its drooping lower branches. Fall color varies from bronze to red. It grows 60 to 70 feet tall.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous conifer. Native to swamps in the southeastern United States, it does surprisingly well in the north. In Iowa, it performs best in the southern portion of the state. The foliage is an attractive yellow-green in the spring and turns to russet in the fall. The bald cypress possesses a pyramidal growth habit and may eventually reach a height of 50 feet.

Other trees that do well in wet soils include the cottonwood (Populus deltoides), alders (Alnus species), and willows (Salix species).

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is an upright, suckering, multi-stemmed shrub that grows 6 to 8 feet tall. Red chokeberry is noted for its red fruit in late summer and fall. Leaves turn a reddish purple in fall. The variety ‘Brilliantissima’ produces excellent fall foliage color (scarlet) and a large crop of glossy red fruit.

A native shrub, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is typically found along stream banks, lake shores, and other wet areas. The shrub has glossy green foliage and produces creamy- white flowers in globular heads in August. Its mature height is about 6 feet, though it can grow up to 12 to 15 feet in southern areas of the United States.

Although not widely planted, summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) is an excellent shrub for the home landscape. It is native to wet areas and will grow in full sun or heavy shade. Summersweet clethra produces small, white, fragrant flowers on spike-like structures. The flowers appear in mid-summer and remain attractive for 3 to 4 weeks. Bees and butterflies find the flowers irresistible. The foliage of summersweet clethra is a lustrous, dark green. In the fall, the leaves turn to a pale yellow or golden brown. Plant size is variable and determined by soil and moisture conditions. Summersweet clethra can grow to 3 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. The cultivar ‘Rosea’ produces pink flowers which fade to pinkish white. ‘Pink Spires’ produces rose- pink flower buds which open to soft pink.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is a native shrub commonly found along streambanks, wet prairies, and at the edges of bottomland woods. Silky dogwood produces flat- topped clusters of yellowish white flowers. Fruit is bluish with white blotches. Silky dogwood is a rounded shrub which grows approximately 6 to 10 feet tall with a similar spread.

Another native dogwood is redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea). It grows about 6 to 8 feet tall. The redosier dogwood is noted for its red-colored twigs in winter. Several varieties are available. ‘Cardinal’ is an introduction from the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Its twigs are bright red in winter. ‘Isanti’ and ‘Kelseyi’ are compact, red-stemmed shrubs. ‘Flaviramea’ has yellow stems.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly. The deep green leaves drop off in the fall revealing bright red fruit. The shrub attains a height of 6 to 10 feet. Hollies are dioecious. Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The cultivars ‘Sparkleberry,’ ‘Winter Red,’ and ‘Christmas Cheer’ produce abundant bright red berries. A male cultivar, such as ‘Southern Gentleman’ or ‘Jim Dandy,’ is required for pollination. Winterberries do require acid soils.

Purpleosier willow (Salix purpurea) is an 8 to 10 foot shrub. ‘Nana’ is a compact form which grows about 4 feet tall. ‘Streamco’ is a Soil Conservation Service, USDA introduction which was developed to prevent soil erosion along stream banks. The purpleosier willow is one of many willows that grow well in wet soils.

American elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a native suckering shrub that produces large clusters of purple-black fruit in late summer. The ripened fruit are good for jellies, preserves, and wines. The fruit are also attractive to birds. Its mature height is 6 to 10 feet. ‘Aurea’ and ‘Laciniata’ are two cultivars which have greater landscape potential than the species. ‘Aurea’ has golden-yellow foliage and red fruit, while ‘Laciniata’ has cutleaf foliage.

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) and common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) are two additional shrubs that do well in moist to wet soils.

When selecting trees and shrubs for the home landscape, gardeners should select plants suitable for the site. Wet sites can be a challenge. However, the aforementioned trees and shrubs will perform well in wet soils.

This article originally appeared in the August 7, 1998 issue, p. 108.

10 plants for moist soil

The UK weather is hard to predict and almost certainly involves a fair amount of rain, with some areas of the country receiving more than others.


Gardens can have many different microclimates within them, too, which may mean that you have dry areas (under a tree, for example) and damp areas within a relatively small area.

As ever, it’s best to play to the strengths of your garden, by choosing plants that thrive in the conditions it offers – which may mean you plant different plants in different parts of the garden. If you have an area that is very damp and drains poorly, you could consider creating a bog garden.

More advice on your soil type:

  • Get the best from wet soil
  • 10 plants to grow in bog gardens
  • Recommendations for damp shade

Happily, many plants thrive in moist, well drained soil. Here are some plants that love moist soil.

It’s best to play to the strengths of your garden, by choosing plants that thrive in the conditions it offers. Happily, many plants thrive in moist but well drained soil. 1


Hosta ‘Yellow River’

Hostas thrive in a damp spot. Hosta ‘Yellow River’ is a large variety, with veined green leaves with yellow margins, and purple flowers from July to August. It’s more tolerant of sun than other hostas, so is perfect for growing in a sunny or partially shaded border. Be sure to protect from slugs and snails.


Himalayan honeysuckle

Himalayan honeysuckle flowers

Leycesteria formosa is an attractive shrub with a long season of interest, bearing shapely leaves, trailing white and claret flowers from mid- to late summer, followed by reddish purple berries in autumn. The flowers are a magnet for bees and the berries attract many species of bird, including blackbirds. Grow in full sun or partial shade.


False goatsbeard

Pink astilbe flower plumes

Astilbes (false goatsbeard) bear masses of ferny foliage, from which elegant plumes of feathery flowers appear from late-spring. They do best in shady, woodland garden schemes where their pink or white blooms provide a splash of colour.


Siberian flag iris

Iris ‘Tropic Night’

Iris sibirica produces small, delicate flowers and narrow, bright green foliage. It forms clumps, so needs space to spread out. Grow in neutral to slightly acidic soil in sun or partial shade.


Bleeding heart

Bleeding heart flowers

Lamprocapnos spectabilis, formerly known as Dicentra spectablilis, bleeding heart, has heart-shaped flowers with white tips, which hang from arching flower stems in late spring to early summer. Although it grows in light shade it often does even better in a sunny border, provided the soil stays sufficiently moist.



Hydrangea ‘Jogosaki’ flowers

Many beautiful and versatile new hydrangeas have been introduced in recent years, and there are some beautiful varieties for all kinds of garden. Discover nine of the best hydrangeas to grow. They will thrive in shade or sun but do like moist soil.



Astrantia ‘Shaggy’ flowers

Astrantias prefer moist soils but will tolerate drier conditions as long as the plants are mulched with leaf mould. Astrantia major ‘Shaggy’ has striking, large flowers with green-tipped, pointed white bracts, held above a mound of glossy green leaves. For best results, grow in partial shade.


Candelabra primula

Primula ‘Miller’s Crimson’ in flower

Candelabra primulas form semi-evergreen rosettes of leaves, from which appear upright spikes of small flowers in early summer. Plants are best grown in groups and allowed to self-seed, so don’t deadhead after flowering. They’re a good choice for a damp, woodland garden. For best results grow in moist, acidic to neutral soil, in partial shade.



Persicaria flowers

Persicarias are mat-forming perennials, bearing an evergreen carpet of tidy green leaves, from which short spikes of flowers appear from midsummer to autumn. Perfect for using as ground cover, they are ideal for growing at the front of a border in sun or partial shade.



Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ winter stems

Colourful-barked dogwoods are grown for winter colour, when their colourful, leafless stems shine like beacons in the bare winter garden. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ has deep red stems, greyish green, white-margined leaves, small, creamy-white flowers and clusters of white berries. It produces the brightest stems when planted in full sun.

Tips for dealing with moist soil

  • Add grit to improve drainage – this is especially important during the winter months, as many plants do not enjoy sitting in cold, very wet soil
  • Add well-rotted compost at least once a year – this will help to aerate the soil
  • Heavy rain can compact the soil surface, creating a ‘pan’. Break up the soil surface with a fork to prevent a pan forming
  • Don’t walk on the soil after heavy rain – this will compact it further. Stand on a plank when digging or planting
  • Excessive rainfall washes nutrients from the soil. Keep your plants healthy and flowering and fruiting well by digging in well-rotted compost or manure, or by feeding with fertiliser such as chicken pellets. Watch our video guide to feeding your plants in summer
  • Slugs and snails thrive in damp conditions. Be vigilant and pick off any that you see. Scatter slug pellets sparingly – organic ones have been found to be just as effective as chemical ones. Discover ways of keeping slugs and snails at bay
  • If your soil is very wet, consider creating raised beds – this will allow you to grow a wider range of plants

More plants for moist soil


  • Actaea
  • Angelica
  • Autumn asters
  • Carex
  • Cowslip
  • Deschampsia
  • Hakonechloa
  • Hart’s tongue fern
  • Hesperantha coccinea
  • Lobelia cardinalis
  • Lythrum salicaria
  • Monarda
  • Phyllostachys (bamboo)
  • Rodgersia
  • Rudbeckia
  • Salix (willow)
  • Sanguisorba
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Spiraea
  • Trillium
  • Viburnum opulus
  • Zantedeschia

By George Weigel/The Patriot-News

Q: We have a large sloped yard with a stream at the bottom. We would like to plant an evergreen on the north side of the yard to act as a windblock and also to block the view of a busy road. The area is about 30 to 40 feet from the stream, and the ground is very wet and mushy a lot of the time. It may dry out a little during a string of hot summer days… but mostly it’s wet.
Is there anything we can plant there that will keep foliage all year and grow tall enough to block the road?

A: Soggy soil is the kiss of death for most evergreens. One tall evergreen that’s found naturally in wet areas near stream banks is the Atlantic white cedar, which is technically a falsecypress (Chamaecyparis thyoides). It’s narrow and upright in habit, a mid-Atlantic native, somewhat similar to an upright juniper in appearance and slightly bluish/green in color.

This species can grow about 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but it’s not commonly sold in garden centers. I’m not sure if anyone carries it locally, but you may be able to order some if you ask.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and black spruce (Picea mariana) also tolerate wet soil fairly well, but neither one of them is very fond of our summer heat (especially balsam fir). Neither is typically available around here either.

Common arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and American holly (Ilex opaca) will tolerate damp soil, but if you’re getting periods where it’s actually mushy for more than a day, I’d have my doubts about their long-term survival.

Dawn redwood, American larch and bald cypress all will grow in wet soil, but although they look like what most people call “evergreens,” they’re actually needled conifers that drop their needles in fall. So for screening, they wouldn’t help you in winter.

Your best bet – if it’s possible – is to rethink your screening and consider whether you can plant somewhere higher up on dry ground somewhere in the same line of sight. Even if you can move slightly up the slope, you might be able to avoid the worst of the wet and open yourself to less-soggy-tolerant species such as spruce, fir and Douglas fir.

Adding soil to construct a berm is another, albeit expensive, option. That would let you plant with the root balls above the soggy ground. Just be careful if you build a berm not to trap or channel the water in a way that creates new trouble.

10 Plants for Poorly-Drained Soils

Sometimes, despite our best efforts to improve soil health and drainage, problem areas persist in the landscape. Poor drainage is a common problem that has many origins. Compaction, clay subsoils and slopes can create problem areas where all the compost in the world cannot improve drainage. But we can still grow thriving gardens through careful plant section. Just like our gardens, not all natural habitats are well-drained and nature has supplied us with a plethora of plants that don’t mind wet feet.

1. ‘Eversheen’ EverColor® Carex. These grass-like plants are exceptionally tough, thriving in soggy soils that make other plants cringe. Carex also tolerates drought. The perfect plant for difficult areas of the garden where soil moisture varies throughout the season.

2. ‘Black Ripple’ Colocasia. Commonly called elephant ear or taro, these tropical beauties love moisture. Grow them in bogs or submerged in a container in the water garden. Colocasia also grows in garden soil, as long as it receives plenty of irrigation.

3. Joy of Living® Celebration™ Daylily. Another plant that tolerates both drought and floods, daylilies are perfect for rain gardens, low areas, and other wet places. Plants can survive submerged for weeks, but do need to dry out eventually. Daylily roots absorb and store water, put them to work managing landscape run-off.

4. Miss Lemon™ Abelia. An adaptable landscape shrub, abelia grows in a variety of soils and lighting conditions. Plants tolerate occasional saturation, but not constantly water-logged soils. Use them in locations where water collects, but dries between rainfall events.

5. Cleopatra™ Liriope. A workhorse in the garden, liriope stabilizes soil against erosion, survives saturated or bone-dry soils, and even tolerates salt spray. A low-maintenance groundcover for even the most challenging locations.

6. Miss Scarlett® Illicium. Native to wet soils in ravines, marshy areas, and stream banks, Illicium beautifies problem areas with glossy evergreen foliage and brilliant red blooms. Thriving in wet soils, this low maintenance shrub is perfect for naturalizing or stabilizing slopes along drainage ways.

7. ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ Crinum Lily. These Southern Belles take everything Mother Nature can throw at them and more. It is rare to find a bulb that doesn’t rot in wet soils, but as the Grumpy Gardener says, “You can’t kill a crinum”.

8. ‘Panama Red’ Hibiscus. Plant this stunning red-leaved tropical for exotic flair in the garden. ‘Panama Red’ requires moist soils, but cannot sit in water. Try planting on small mounds to ensure healthy roots.

9. Heirloom Snowflake. Growing naturally in marshes and wet meadows, snowflake prefers moist or wet soils. Tuck it along pond edges and stream banks, or plant it in a bog garden. For optimal spring growth and blooming, keep soils consistently moist.

10. ‘Poquito’ Banana. Bananas need a lot of water as those giant leaves are constantly losing moisture to evaporation. Short of planting a banana in standing water, it is hard to give the plant too much water in summer. However, wet soils in winter can be problematic. Poorly drained areas will work as long as they don’t stay consistently wet.

Top 10 Moisture-Loving Plants

My Top 10 Moisture-Loving Plants

For a lot of people a constantly damp or boggy soil is potentially a problem, but that needn’t be the case. There are many plants that will survive and indeed thrive in such conditions. I am going to list and explain why I feel these plants should be considered for your own garden if you have a wet soil.

1) Astilbe

A great plant to grow because of its unusual looking blooms and long flowering period. Deeply toothed leaves emerge in early spring and by summer, large feathery plumes stand handsomely above the foliage. They contrast nicely with large, broad-leaved plants like hostas and will grow and flower in shade but ideally require full sun to get to their full size. Astilbes won’t tolerate a dry soil so underlying moisture is just what they need.

2) Astrantia

Another plant with a long flowering season. Astrantias have an endearing quality and although often grown as a ‘cottage-garden’ plant, they are much better suited to cool, damper conditions. There will be many pincushion-like flowers on one plant and they will do well in shade and sun alike.

3) Gunnera

The gigantic G. manicata or G. tinctoria make the list simply because of their size and grandure. They can bring a tropical feeling to temperate gardens but in no way, is this a plant for a small plot. Chunky, bristly stalks can carry leaves that measure to nearly four feet across whilst curious reddish flowers lurk beneath. It’s important that before the cold of winter sets in that the large red crowns are covered over and protected from frosts. You can use straw but here we choose to use the large leaves themselves, turned upside down like a hat.

4) Helenium

Sun and a damp soil is all these daisies will need. The flowers bring a bright, fiery zing to the border from mid to late summer. They can be ‘Chelsea chopped’ if you’d like them kept shorter and more compact.

5) Lythrum

On the list because of the stunning spikes of pink flowers and its ability to naturalise on the edges of ponds and waterways. It’s nectar-rich flowers keep the pollinators happy and its foliage turns an attractive reddish colour in autumn. A beautiful plant.

6) Molinia

Of all the grasses that like a retentive soil, molinias are perhaps the most elegant. On still autumn days in low autumn light, once the arching stems have started to turn golden brown, they help bring a sense of timelessness to the garden. There are many different varieties but if you have the space, then the larger ones are the most desirable.

7) Persicaria

One of my favourite herbaceous perennials.In particular, P. amplexicaulis. All amplexicaulis knotweeds are extremely long flowering and easy to grow in a sunny or partly shaded spot. They’re quick to fill a space and create a big impression from midsummer through to late autumn. P. bistorta ‘Superba’ offers a beautiful soft pink in spring that goes very nicely with trollius.

8) Rodgersia

Very attractive foliage plants that look great beside a stream, lake or pond. With their large horse chestnut shaped leaves, it’s best to allow plenty of space around them. They grow best in shade but will do equally well in sun providing the soil is moist enough. Well worth a place in your garden if the space allows.

9) Rudbeckia

Black-eyed Susan is another daisy that is a real showstopper throughout autumn, especially en masse. With their large golden yellow petals and dark brown, almost black centres they are a bright, bold perennial for the border. Not particularly difficult to grow, and not particularly different or unusual, but still deserving of its spot in the top ten.

10) Trollius

In the wild these plants grow in wet, grassy meadows. They form strong clumps of handsome foliage and have yellow or orange globe-like flowers that really catch the eye in late spring. Trollius have a reputation for being difficult to grow but so long as they are in a cool position in soil that doesn’t dry out in summer they will be fine.

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