Dear Miss Floribunda,
Last year, a tree in our backyard toppled in a storm, and we had it hauled away. Ever since then, the backyard has tended to flood during rain and is boggy, in general. I think the tree was draining the water, and now I should plant or dock something else in its place. I’ve never done much gardening before, but I don’t want to just suck this up. Does anything spring to mind? Your pool of advisers might float some ideas. I can’t afford a big tree, and there are other trees nearby that might topple and ruin whatever I plant, so maybe you could suggest a quick ground cover of tough native plants, maybe just from seed. I don’t want to drown in debt.
Just Getting My Feet Wet on Jefferson Street
Dear Just Getting My Feet Wet,
I don’t want to dampen your spirits, but before you buy any seeds, I think that first you ought to acquire three things: a set of stepping stones, lots of compost and a very sturdy spade.
Since you’re on a budget, I consulted my cousin Parsimony. She gets stepping stones from a kitchen-and-bathroom-counter maker’s dumpster. When ovals and other geometric shapes are cut out to make spaces for sinks, the pieces of marble and granite are thrown out, and the business has to pay someone to haul them away. Parsimony has persuaded a business to let her take what she wants, with the assurance that she will refrain from filing a lawsuit if she injures herself. She cautions that the slabs should be placed with the beautiful-but-slippery side down and the rough side up — ugly but safe to walk on. She gets her compost in quantity from city leaf-composting sites and brings her own garbage bags.
Where she doesn’t spare expense is on the purchase of high-quality garden tools — although she is pleased if she can find good used ones at farm auctions. She warns that if you choose a used spade, make sure it has a strong handle that won’t break off easily. Now, once you have the compost and spade, you face the task of digging the compost into the area that floods. While this should help right away, I suggest the stepping stones for a firm surface to stand on while you dig.
I’m surmising that your backyard is still partially shaded. There are a number of beautiful water-tolerant plants that like a certain amount of shade and could survive a tree-toppling: Astilbe comes to mind immediately, and lilies of the valley thrive in consistently moist, if not too soggy, conditions. However, neither of these are easy to grow from seed, and they are not native.
I asked my Chesapeake Natives contact, Wendy Wildflower, for ideas. She recommends the marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, as a ground cover. It is in the same family as buttercups and
ranunculus, with clusters of lovely satiny sepals of a particularly thrilling deep yellow. It spreads rapidly and can be grown from seed. However, it propagates more easily from stem cuttings, so you might want to purchase a few plants. It takes up to three years to bloom, however.
Wendy also recommends golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), which has lovely yellow flowers and can be grown from seed. It is an important pollinator, and a food plant for the swallowtail butterfly. It also can reach a height of 3 feet, which is not a ground cover you can walk on.
If you actually prefer a tall ground cover — at least for the edges of your yard — you could consider sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale. It grows to a height of 5 feet.
A lower-growing alternative that Wendy recommends is golden ragwort, or Packera aurea. It’s a member of the daisy family and has cute little yellow flowers in spring but then looks rather scruffy after flowering. Birds will eat its seeds, and then you can cut it back where it will provide a mat-like green cover.
If you prefer purple to yellow, another low-growing plant you might consider is the marsh blue violet (Viola cucullata). It can be grown from seed, but it’s quicker and less expensive to grow from root division. These can be ordered online. It naturalizes quickly, and grows 6 inches tall, on average, but no higher than 8 inches tall.
I then consulted Mr. Minnowhaven, who has a water garden. If you have to have flowers, he recommends yellow trout lily and blue flag. If you don’t have to have flowers, he would advise planting one of an immense variety of sedges or some beautiful ferns. Sedge can be grown from seed or cuttings, but propagating ferns from their spores (they don’t have seeds) is a lengthy and painstaking process. They are easily grown from clippings, however. Both sedge and ferns spread easily. You might also consider one of the mints, especially water mint (Mentha aquatica). Although mints can be grown from seed, they are easily grown from cuttings and spread rapidly.
The Hyattsville Horticultural Society is having an outdoor meeting and plant exchange on April 16, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the home of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder, 3909 Longfellow Street. You might want to come and find plants that might be appropriate or, at the very least, get some good tips on where to find them.