Things are looking pretty good these days in my soggy backyard garden. All I can say is, it's about time. I've been at this long enough.
I know, I know: life's a journey, it's-not-the-destination-it's-the-ride, blah blah blah. Me? I'm an "Are we there yet?" kind of person. I like results.
But let's pretend I'm a different kind of person - the kind who gushes, without a hint of irony, "This has been the most incredible journey." So come along with me, if you will, on my incredible soggy garden journey.
Pictured above: the design challenge. When we moved to Cary in 2005, the back yard was basically a flood-prone expanse of grass. Behind it lies a forest and protected wetland. For the first few years, we wisely left it alone.
2007: the journey begins. We decided to install pavers in the driveway and extend them to a pathway around the house. A crew came in, excavated the dirt, then dumped it in the back of the yard. My pathetic remnants of a lawn were now gone. And since the contractors very kindly compacted all that excavated dirt, the flooding got worse. There was only one logical thing to do: make a garden.
My research (and my own two eyes) told me I had a fairly challenging situation on my hands. The bottom half of the yard is low lying, with two natural streams behind it. In a rainstorm, the water overflows the streams, floods the yard, and occasionally takes down a tree. Stage 1 is massive runoff; Stage 2, standing water. Even after amending the soil, I still wind up with only the underlying clay, since the topsoil and mulch invariably sail away downstream.
If I had half an ounce of brains and unlimited funds, I would have hired a landscaper, who would have built a French drain, hauled in truckloads of topsoil and edging materials, and created raised beds that somehow managed to look neat and natural at the same time. Since I have neither, Ron and I did it ourselves, piecemeal. It was pure idiocy, I know. But I figured that no matter how it turned out, it had to look better than it did before.
Below, summer bloomers in the soggy garden.
Little by little, year after year, we put down paper bags to kill the weeds, then covered them with compost and top soil, which we hauled in bag by bag. Then, armed with my list of wet-tolerant plants and some shredded pine bark to help with drainage, I started digging. I had no grand vision and no design scheme; plant placement was determined initially on a first-come, first-served basis. I'm still playing musical chairs with the plants.
Above, fall bloomers in the soggy garden.
As I continue adding to the wetland garden, aesthetics by necessity take a back seat to practicality. Can I sink my shovel into the ground without hitting too many tree roots in this spot? Good, I'll put something here. This area gets only filtered sun? Bring on the Turtlehead. Then there's the inconvenient fact that "wet tolerance" is not a one-size-fits-all definition. Some wetland plants can take days of standing water, some cannot. Very few can tolerate un-amended North Carolina clay. I "design" the garden accordingly.
I also had to accept the fact that while some wetland plants are quite ornamental, many are not. But beggars can't be choosers. Juncus has its uses, as does Winterberry holly. Ron once weed-whacked my tussock sedges, thinking they were weeds. Which, in a certain way, they are.
Rest assured that I lost many plants along the way, and will continue to lose them in the future. All of my Lobelias, for instance, decided to quit after a year in my soggy garden, so I am now Lobelia-less, despite its reputation as a moisture-lover that grows on stream banks.
All things considered, though, it's not looking too bad, if I do say so myself. It may not be garden-magazine good, but it's certainly better than it was before. And of course I learned a lot along the way.
Enough with the life lessons. Are we there yet?
Once upon a time, there was a nondescript yard with an unfortunate tendency to flood. It was not a nice place at all.
So begins the story of my back yard bog garden, which is looking pretty darn good after a very rough start. There are many heroes in this story, but today's star is Louisiana Iris "Black Gamecock," which is blooming like mad as I write this.
It's official: my back yard looks like hell. The trees and shrubs are bare, the berries have been eaten, the perennials have died back. All that is left is pennywort. Acres and acres of pennywort.
Okay, I exaggerate. I don't have acres and acres. But if I did, they would be covered with pennywort.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, pennywort (aka dollarweed or Hydrocotyle in Latin) is an invasive, low-growing riparian or aquatic plant that spreads by seeds and runners. In other words, it's a weed that takes over wet areas.
What should I say when somebody tells me my dog is cute? "Thank you" is probably the right response, but why? I had absolutely nothing to do with my dog's cuteness.
I feel the same way about swamp sunflower, which right now is getting all the attention in my garden. It is, bar none, the most spectacular plant in town right now. But I take no credit for it whatsoever.
For those of us in the Southeast, swamp sunflower (zones 6-9) may just be the perfect plant. It's beautiful, it's low maintenance, and it's pretty much disease-free. Plant it in full sun, give it decent soil, and make sure it gets some water during dry spells, and you'll look like a pro. Put it in a soggy spot, and you'll look like a genius.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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