green scene

Green Scene: Some plants will welcome boggy soil created by recent snowstorms

Native blue flag iris performs well in very wet conditions. It can grow to two feet tall.
Native blue flag iris performs well in very wet conditions. It can grow to two feet tall. (Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, February 27, 2010

As I write, snow is finally melting, making its way into the soil, creating soggy conditions in planting beds and woodlands.

Already this winter, we've set a record for snowfall in the Washington area, so boggy conditions going into spring are to be expected. The result of this supersaturated soil is that some of you may find it necessary to become bog gardeners, working in an area that is soft and muddy.

Consistently wet conditions can be a nuisance, making lawns hard to mow, leaving muddy tracks through turf areas and even causing grass to die because oxygen isn't available to the roots. There are many trees, shrubs and perennials that will not flourish in these wet conditions.

Trees with saturated root systems can topple because the absorption roots of even large trees anchor them only two feet into the soil. Root-rot diseases, mildew and mold are common during cool, moist weather, and compaction will occur from the weight of ice and snow and tramping by wildlife and gardeners.

There are a host of plants that will thrive in these conditions, however. Some species don't evenmind being planted in standing water. For example, blue flag iris and acorus thrive in water, but they require sun to flower or display showy variegated foliage.

Other plants, such as ferns, that like moist conditions will perform better in shady areas. Lightening the soil with leaf mold and planting all trees, shrubs and perennials high -- leaving as much as one-third of the roots aboveground -- will help plants drain and let oxygen get to the roots. Here are some flora that will thrive in soggy conditions:


Weeping willows are a romantic choice, but they are notoriously thirsty, prone to canker and other diseases, and will root toward any water source, including septic systems. Traditional weeping willows (Salix babylonica) are beautiful but too large for most gardens -- up to 70 feet tall by 40 feet wide -- and their branches weep to the ground.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a good choice, as is sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). One of my favorite trees, serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), tolerates moist conditions and has edible berries and striking orange-red fall foliage.

If you're looking for a tall, stately tree that loves water, the common baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is a possibility. It's a deciduous conifer that displays russet-red fall needles and grows slowly to 75 feet or more.

River birch (Betula nigra) is another graceful tree that has whitish tan, exfoliating bark offering tremendous winter interest.

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) will grace moist-to-wet woodlands and offers beautiful golden fall color and nuts, sap and foliage that attract wildlife.

Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), a native evergreen with soft blue-green foliage, thrives in moist conditions and offers many hybrids.

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