Sunday, May 30, 2010

Solution Plants For Mucky Problems


A few days ago, I was asked for a solution to a mucky problem.  Water shedding off a roof was being dammed by a concrete walk.  The soil was usually muddy.  The homeowner had been unable to grow much of anything except for Florida Betony (Stachys floridana), a notorious weed.

Florida Betony is a plant in the Lamiaceae or Mint family which is very difficult to control.  It spreads by underground rhizomes and produces tubers that resemble fat white grubs.

Her gardener dug deeply to remove the weed and all its tubers.  Their plan was to install a french drain or dry well to improve drainage, then to add topsoil for a new perennial bed.  But the lot sloped downward from the bed, and they were afraid the topsoil would wash away.  What to do?

Well, yes, a french drain or dry well installed along with a few inches of steel edging inside the bed next to the walk might prevent the topsoil from eroding.  But perhaps there is an easier way.  I suggested that the homeowner turn the area into a rain garden.

Functionally, rain gardens are as natural as puddles and swamps, but they're intended.  It doesn't matter how small or large they may be. They collect rainfall, slow its drainage, allow it to percolate into the soil, and may even refresh subterranean aquifers.  They may also provide habitat for special plant and animal species.

For rain gardens to work and look good, they should be planted with appropriate species.  Lawn grasses usually don't succeed.  I suggested a few plants that would work; enough for the homeowner and her gardener to consider for the moment.

But yesterday, I reflected on a couple of my gardening truisms.
  • Find what works in nature and improve it.
  • A weed is a plant that is growing in the wrong place, or for which no one has found a use.
So I grabbed my camera, got in my pickup truck and drove along a country road to see what I might see.  I turned my attention to ditches.  Sure enough, I found several examples of plants with ornamental value that would be appropriate for bogs and rain gardens.  Not all were native.

Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata) - A deciduous fern that usually grows to 18", it's hardy in USDA climate zones 3 through 9.  It performs best in partial to full shade.

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) - A deciduous fern that may grow from 36" to 72", is so named because of the tall, cinnamon-colored fertile leaves that emerge in spring.  It's hardy in climate zones 3 through 10, and performs best in partial to full shade.

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) - A deciduous fern that grows from 24" to 48" or more.  It's hardy in climate zones 3 through 10, and thrives in full sun to partial shade.

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) - A herbaceous perennial that grows to 30".  It's hardy in climate zones 4 through 8, and thrives in full sun.  Standing water is not a problem.

Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus) - A herbaceous perennial that grows 48" or more.  It's hardy in climate zones 4 through 9, and thrives in full sun to partial shade.  Standing water is not a problem.

Ditch Lily (Hemerocallis fulva) - A popular "heirloom" daylily that's hardy in climate zones 5 through 10.  It performs well in full sun to partial shade.

Cannas (Canna x generalis) - Another popular herbaceous perennial, it's hardy in climate zones 8 through 10.  It performs well in full sun to partial shade.

Lizard's Tail, Water Dragon (Saururus cernuus) - This native, herbaceous perennial is seldom grown for it's ornamental qualities, but it should be.  It's hardy in climate zones 5 through 11.  It performs well in full sun to partial shade, and loves very wet soil.

Swamp Mallow, Hardy Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) - The species name sounds like "mosquitos"; both thrive in the same habitat.  A deciduous perennial, it loves full sun, and is hardy in climate zones 5 through 10.  The large flowers appear from mid-summer to fall.   I think that marshmallows were so-named because they resemble the spent flowers of this species.

River Lily (Crinum variabile) - Evergreen strap-like leaves and white or white/pink-striped flowers distinguish this beauty.  It's hardy in climate zones 7 or 8 through 11, and thrives in full sun to partial shade.

Common Rush (Juncus effusus) - Though seldom noticed, this one has lots of potential as an ornamental.  Some with interesting colors and growth habits are becoming available.  It's hardy in climate zones 4 through 10.  Grow it for the foliage, though the flowers are not unattractive.

Thus inspired by my little exploration, I'll occasionally publish lists of other solution plants for muddy places.

I've often declared, sometimes with tongue in cheek, that many weeds might be controlled if they could be eaten.  It's a hungry world.  In fact, that could be the case with Florida Betony.  I've learned that the tubers are edible - said to be delicious eaten raw or sauteed.  Surely there must be some marketing angle.

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