As I write these words, rain is pounding on the windows and sweeping in waves across the deck. Lightning is flashing down like all those fiery arrows in "King Arthur," and thunder seems to be shaking the house on its foundations.
So what else is new? The mid-Atlantic region has been having the wettest weather in decades, maybe a century. That terrible drought that was such a threat a few years ago seems like a figment of the imagination. The result is that some gardeners are being forced to become "bog" gardeners -- meaning they are dealing with what the dictionary generally defines as "an area of soft, naturally waterlogged ground."
Wet spots in the yard can be a real nuisance. They are hard to mow and trim, and many plants can't flourish. Constant moisture can lead to several types of problems.
One is that when conditions are overcast, or planting areas are under a canopy of trees in moist areas, plants get less sunlight. Unless they like shade, it can affect growth. Another issue is that when there's a lot of rain -- often coupled with poor drainage -- soil gets saturated, and some plants really hate having wet roots. Root rot is a serious problem in suh a situation. Diseases can thrive in wet conditions. Crown rot, fungus and mildew are common.
The sunny lining in all the stormy weather is that there are a lot of attractive plants that love wet conditions. Wherever your landscape shows a tendency to bog down, there is a plant to embrace and enhance it.
Soggy spots, like all garden spots, should be evaluated for sunlight and soil. Is your soggy spot in an open, sunny location, or in the shade, perhaps under a canopy of trees? And how wet is it? Some plants don't mind being planted in water -- many irises, for instance -- and some do better where it's only damp -- ferns, for example.
Even if the soil is wet, it needs to be enriched with organic material. If it's heavy clay, you might solve some of your water problems by loosening it with humus or compost. Lay a thick layer of compost on top and till it deeply to help prevent washouts. As for plants, there are lots to choose from.
Among trees, 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 a nearby septic system. The traditional weeping willows (Salix babylonica) are beautiful but get too big for most gardens -- up to 70 feet tall by 40 wide, with branches that reach 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 bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a possibility. It's a rare 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, peeling bark offering tremendous winter interest.
When it comes to shrubs, red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a great choice, with white flowers, white berries that birds love, and red or yellow stems offering winter interest. Several varieties also display white variegated foliage in summer. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) like moist conditions and also have edible fruit. Some people make wine of elderberries. A shrub that likes wet feet, is shade-tolerant and valued by birds and homeowners for its brilliant red winter berries is the deciduous winterberry holly. The smaller pussy willow (Salix caprea) is ornamental, with its soft male catkins -- flowers -- in March and early April. A native evergreen with soft blue-green foliage that thrives in moist conditions, and offers many hybrids, is Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides).
Perennials that tolerate boggy conditions are astilbes, offering a shrublike foliage with feathery, plumed flowers; the native grassy-looking sweet flag (Acorus calamus), which resembles large flag irises and releases a pleasant cinnamon scent when bruised; Japanese irises (Iris ensata), with showy purple, blue or white flowers and beautiful foliage; heart-leaf brunnera (B. macrophylla), with its large, coarse, textured leaves and panicles of blue forget-me-not flowers from late winter into spring; big-leaf ligularia (L. dentata) and rodgersia (R. species) with huge foliage that must have moisture to survive; and the huge-leaved butter-bur (Petasites species), some species of which have leaves up to four feet across. Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) has huge pink flowers and grows four to seven feet tall.
Most ferns like moisture, and some thrive with wet feet, such as the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum Pictum) with silvery maroon coloration, and ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the fiddleheads of which are used in gourmet dishes in the spring.
There are some grasses and sedges that will flourish in wet circumstances, including black flowering sedge (Carex nigra), with bluish leaves and blackish flowers in late spring; wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), native to bogs and marshes in eastern North America; and the tall, native switch grass (Panicum virgatum) that grows strongly in the summer heat and is a natural for the edge of pools or ponds. Wool grass (Scirpus cyperinus), a member of the sedge family, is an ornamental native of wet meadows and swamps in northeastern North America that grows to five feet.
If these bog plants have piqued your interest and you don't have a place to grow them, plant a rain garden. It's a way to capture moisture for plants that like wet feet and help the environment at the same time. It's a new kind of gardening. It is a garden that captures and filters water from rainfall and snow melt, helping to replenish groundwater and prevent what's called "polluted runoff."
Polluted runoff is a problem when large tracts of land are covered with buildings or pavementg, where runoff from rain and melting snow flows across hard surfaces, picking up pollutants such as gasoline, oil, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals before flowing into storm drains. Storm-sewer systems dump water into nearby lakes, rivers and streams and, eventually, , into Chesapeake Bay.
Rain gardens reduce mowing and maintenance and can be a magnet for birds and butterflies. They are not favorable habitats for mosquitoes because the water is absorbed and drains away.
A rain garden can be any size and slightly lower then the surrounding grade, two inches to four feet. Most are four to eight inches deep. The depth depends partly on the soil. The point is not to create a spot where water pools. It must drain well, and tilling and loosening up with humus or compost are essential. The best locations are near hard surfaces such as sidewalks, streets or alleys or near downspouts, not too close to the foundation. You can also design them to break up large areas of turf. A rain garden can absorb as much as 30 percent more water than a lawn. The area should be fairly level, because the bottom surface of the rain garden should be flat.
Rain gardeners usually use native plants that are acclimated to local conditions. The garden looks best if the edges are kept tidy. Use low retaining walls, low-growing shrubs or trimmed lawn.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.