Moisture is much easier to put into a yard than take out. What to do when water causes soggy ground and muddy puddles in your landscape?
Native plants to the rescue.
To the uninitiated, the concept of excessive moisture as a legitimate gardening threat might seem like something reserved more for marshlands or beachfront property.
But it’s a serious issue in Montgomery County (and beyond). These issues often occur in shady spots; combining high moisture with low light is a recipe for problems.
“Plant disease problems can worsen under these conditions, especially if you have poor air circulation as well,” said Donna Evans, a planner with the RainScapes Program of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection. “Standing water for long periods of time can create a mosquito problem as well. These sites can become muddy and unusable spaces in your yard.”
It’s so common in the county, in fact, that local landscape architects say it takes up a significant amount of their time—and thanks to weather patterns that have gained intensity in recent years, the arrow would appear to remain pointing upward for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a huge, huge issue. It probably accounts for 80 percent of my work,” said Lisa Wilcox Deyo, a landscape architect and owner of Bethesda-based LWD Garden Design. “The storms with climate change have gotten more intense…A lot of stormwater is funneled through peoples’ yards.”
Fortunately, there are solutions. Drying out your wet areas can provide aesthetic as well as functional upgrades.
“It’s a pretty big opportunity to use that spot to do some interesting plantings,” said Matt Cohen, owner of Matt’s Habitats in Takoma Park. “You’re using plants to stabilize the area, but there are some cool things you can do.”
Native plants, to be precise. Why? For one, local species are adapted to native local conditions. Their root systems also are well suited to suck up extraneous water.
“Plant the site with deep-rooted, moisture-loving native plants that like shade,” Evans advised. “The roots of native plants extend deeper than many non-native plants, allowing for more water absorption. And the deep roots help to create channels for the water to soak into the soil.”
According to Evans, some native species that thrive in wet, shady areas include:
There are other solutions beyond plants, of course. Talking to your friendly neighborhood gardening professional can also help. If you can, however, come prepared with some of your own research.
“Assess the permeability of the soil,” Wilcox Deyo suggested. “Dig a hole and see how long it takes for the water to go down. See if the water is soaking in or running off, and where it’s coming from.”
There are also more physical solutions to prevent water from running off and collecting in some areas. Some of those solutions are even eligible for rebates under the RainScapes program. Conservation landscapes, for example, are a coordinated collection of native and other plants that improve soil health, are beautiful and capture stormwater much more effectively than typical lawn landscaping.
“Try to reduce the amount of water reaching that part of the garden if possible,” Evans said. “Check if there is a way to channel out some of the water from this area to another area in your yard that can handle more water. Till in or work in by hand organic matter to improve the soil drainage.”
Dealing with high-moisture, shady areas can be an opportunity for creativity and conservation. It can even be fun. It’s all in how you look at it.
“People are re-educating themselves that lawns don’t always work in shady areas,” Wilcox Deyo said. “We get them thinking about alternatives.”
Scott Harris is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. Scott may be reached at email@example.com.