If you were to convert the recent monster snowstorm to a rainfall equivalent, you would get an amount of precipitation of a floodlike two inches, and probably more.
The storm’s powdery nature seemed to spare us widespread breakage of trees and shrubs and for a while brought other blessings. It formed a protective blanket for precocious daffodils and hellebores, and it forced us all to slow down and look up from our screens.
In addition, its steady thaw allowed the garden to absorb the moisture at a reasonably gentle rate while sparing us the flooding and erosion normally associated with a deluge.
However, the soil is now pretty saturated, and gardeners keen to attend to pruning and ground work before March must bide their time: Sodden soil should not be turned, amended or otherwise worked. Just walking on lawns or, worse, garden beds, will compact and compromise the soil and its microbial life.
Many of us deal with areas of squishy soil most of the year; the key is to turn this challenge to your advantage. Such locations are often at the low point of a yard, underlaid with heavy clay and at the receiving end of rainwater that sheets down a slope or is funneled by a swale. These are areas that don’t dry out much unless there is a prolonged dry spell. I have such an area, strangely, at the top of a hill where water seeps from buried layers of clay.
Most of us with these afflictions tend to ignore the swamp and wonder why the turf is struggling amid the spreading moss and ground ivy.
There are other options. You can install elaborate drainage, assuming you have a place to send the water, or you can build raised beds. The latter always look forced and unnatural and may not give the selected plants the drainage they need, especially as the beds settle over time.
I find another course to be the most appealing: To remove ailing areas of lawn, take out failing plants and choose new ones that will abide the wetness.
The resulting swanky swamp is inherently natural-looking and should not be confused with a rain garden, an ecologically minded feature that is designed to trap water from roofs, driveways and the like and hold it until it soaks away.
Environmental designers think a lot about the hydrology of a rain garden but not enough about its horticultural or aesthetic aspects, judging by the ones I have seen. These gardens suffer from two fundamental problems: The initial planting is feeble, with too few plants and too little sense of plant layering, and when plantings die off or need tweaking, they don’t get the follow-up care they need. The failure rate of plants is inherently greater in extreme environments, and no garden worth having is not adjusted as needed. Another snag is that rain gardens often are mulched with heavy stone — this is to stop soil from washing away in a flood — but the pebbles only draw attention to an awkward landscape feature.
The creator of a swanky swamp can learn from these deficiencies.
If I had a large, wet area, I would start with trees and could happily pick some native hardwoods such as the blackgum, a red maple variety, or bottomland oaks such as the pin oak, possum oak or swamp white oak. But what I would actually love to create is a grove of bald cypress or the somewhat smaller pond cypress. For smaller gardens, plant breeders have developed upright, narrow versions. Prairie Sentinel is a pond cypress variety that after 10 years gets to about 15 feet high and 6 feet wide. Lindsey’s Skyward is a bald cypress that matures in the garden at about 20 feet while still just 6 feet across. The species, by contrast, might get three times as large — great if you have the room.
Big trees need the company of smaller trees or large shrubs, and my ideal garden would include serviceberries, which form multi-stemmed thickets of variable size and understated beauty, with white blossoms around the dogwood time (but far more subtle) and fiery autumn color. I would leave room for the sweetbay magnolia; a well-shaped individual is as fine a specimen as you could find. If you don’t have the space for big trees, you could use the serviceberry, sweetbay magnolia and perhaps the common winterberry in that architectural role.
There are several wonderful varieties of the inkberry, a suckering, evergreen holly that is great as an informal hedge. It isn’t used as much as it should be. The Lindera, or spicebush, is a medium to large native shrub and one of the first to flower in early spring, with cheery yellow-green flowers on naked branches.
Once you have created these bones with trees and shrubs, you can fill in the gaps with perennials and ground covers. Perennials that like swampy conditions tend not to be demure; they are tall, lanky and often showy in flower. For sheer exhibitionism, you can’t beat the hardy hibiscus, which appears in high summer when other things are flagging from the heat and humidity. The flowers of Hibiscus moescheutos are nothing short of outrageous. When you see a bee with Coke-bottle glasses, you can be sure it’s making its way to the hibiscus.
The related Hibiscus coccineus, with red blooms with thinner petals, is a little less torrid, but not by much. Other large perennials for such a place might include the ironweed, a mammoth daisy named Inula magnifica and the Joe Pye weed. Medium-size lovelies include the Euphorbia palustris, mountain fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis Firetail) and the native turtlehead.
Wetlands lend themselves to primal-looking plants; after all, this is the terrain where we traded in our flippers for claws.
If you are looking to cover large areas, you could plant ostrich fern or the cinnamon fern, which is less of a bully.
Just know that if you plant the scouring rush or horsetail — Equisetum — it is forever. It is long in root and in memory, a plant that remembers the dinosaurs.