Poor soil drainage limits plant choices in garden
Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
A gardener of any substance learns pretty quickly one of the cardinal rules of gardening: It is easier to plant to suit the site than to adapt a site to certain plants.
Try to make an arid scree garden from a swamp and you’re up against it. Drain tiles, extensive (and expensive) dirt work and elevation changes might finally get the job done. Contrariwise, making a water garden in a desert holds little promise of success.
So, the plants chosen must fit the site. In the case of wet soils the choices are severely limited, but it is not impossible, by any means, to achieve success in making up a successful ambience in such a situation.
I have just such a piece of garden. It is shady; in winter it stays constantly wet and, even in summer, it seldom dries out completely. Thus it is suited for things that will stand heavy soil and poor drainage.
Some years ago, after fighting with ill-suited plants there and having predictable failures, it dawned on me a 180-degree change in course was needed.
First major plants to go in were five bald cypresses. The three-foot whips, planted in just the amenable conditions they love, have shot up to perhaps 40 feet in 10 years or so. They are in a fairly tight grove, some 15 feet apart, and their decidedly fastigiate shape creates a pleasing vista from our back windows.
In spring, their delicate leaf-out is a pale green lace; in summer they offer fine greenery, and in fall they take on a rusty almond foliage tone before shedding. They contribute even in winter with attractive bark, and they are beginning to build buttressed lower boles the species is known for in old age.
Already in the area were several large black gums, another tree that tolerates — yes, dotes on — soggy conditions. Black gums are legendary for flaming autumn color, and they seldom let us down in that area. Less noticed is the excellence of the summer leafage, glossy and reflective of sunlight.
Other introduced trees have been a trio of southern magnolias. These, botanically Magnolia grandiflora (grand — large; flora — flowers) are aptly named, with the white chalices of flowers in summer to a foot across, with a pervasive lemon scent. Even more valuable is the exuberant foliage, leaves a foot or more long that shine as if polished.
Southern magnolias are native to our south, where those in the wild are called bull bay. Swamps along Interstate 75 south of Atlanta are rife with natives, growing sometimes in standing water.
Though not often mentioned as suited for shady wet places, I have had success with a Florida anise tree (Illicium floridanum). It has been in about eight years or so and stands some 10 feet tall. The leaves are like miniature magnolia leaves, evergreen and about six inches long.
My anise tree is growing in one of the wettest places in our garden, almost swampy in winter, and shows no ill effect. It seems perfectly happy, but doesn’t bloom as heavily as it would if it were in more sun. It’s no big loss; the flowers are not very showy. The species has maroon blooms, but mine is a variety with white ones.
An attraction of the plant is the fragrance of the crushed foliage. Fragrant, that is, if you like licorice. Anise is the flavoring in licorice, and the leaves give off the smell of licorice candy.
Red maples, often called swamp maples, are native here and one of the finest trees for fall foliage color. However, their roots are so invasive at the surface as to inhibit much understory planting, and I have removed all those in the area that were native.
A number of viburnums do well in wet places, but most are less than trees and more nearly fit the category of shrubs. That’s a subject for another day.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 1.19.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path