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Gardening on wet soil

Gardening on wet soil

You know that area in the garden that you’ve been struggling with for years?The one where rain water collects, moss covers damp soil and even grass fails to grow? Yes, that one. We all know it. Many of us have one particular spot in the garden which just won’t drain well enough for plants to thrive. In my own lake-side garden this is a large patch of grass that never quote dries out, leaving only some straggly grass and a scattering of yellow flag Iris. Due to the fact that it lies lower than the rest of the site, along with the thick, loamy soil, this area as it is has little chance of growing the mix of perennials I would ideally like to plant and look at from my office window.

A way around this would be to raise the level of the ground somewhat by adding a couple of tonnes of good quality soil. This would certainly allow me to cheat my way to allow planting more perennials but it would also change the feel of the garden, and the view quite significantly. 

Before resorting to radically changing topography, I always like to consider the feel of the site, the sense of the space and locale, which in garden design is described as the Genius Loci. Garden designers strive to carefully study the sense of a space, the surrounding areas as well as what vegetation grows naturally in the landscape which is being cultivated. 

In this context it is interesting to consider that as humans we have a long history of cultivating gardens not just for crop and livestock but also for visual and sensual pleasure.


One way of looking at designing gardens as opposed to a natural development of a landscape, is that we are creating our own landscapes on top of the existing landscape- this is what we call a garden. In a well designed space however this is not simply one layer placed on top of another layer but rather a considered choice of elements which include hard landscaping, structures and planting, and which will, in time knit into the fabric of the existing site and vegetation. This is where the genius loci of a site becomes so vital.  


In the case of a new build on existing land studying the spirit of the space and what grows in it is relatively simple to do as the surrounding landscape has not been cultivated yet, particularly if you have the luxury of taking pictures of the site before the build commences. Here you can study the natural plants which surround the site, analyse their needs and use them as a valuable clue as to what will naturally thrive without too much intervention. 


In existing gardens, where some form of cultivation or growing has already started this can be studied by looking at how the existing vegetation is surviving. Is it thriving or struggling? Where are the places in the garden that need to be addressed? 

In my own location this area is the marshy ground which never quite dries out and taking the approach of minimum intervention in the actual topography left me with the solution of simply going with what I have. The lakeside location dictates that the water level rises and falls naturally -so what’s easier than simply planting the area up with plants that thrive in wet conditions? 

In the case of small patches in the garden that flood or collect rainwater you will have a similar choice to make. You can either improve the drainage of the area and re-grade it or you could consider allowing the site and its conditions to inform what you plant in the space. 

If you decide to use the existing conditions as inspiration for the garden then I would recommend having a good look at the soil and assessing if it is amenable to cultivation. You may need to dig in some organic matter to help improve growing conditions for the plants to help take it from wet to moist. If the quality of the soil is right you’re ready to start thinking about what to plant.

So what sort of plants thrive in moist areas? Well, you’d be surprised to know that there are many that have adapted to wet conditions.  Depending on how much space you have to work with there are plenty of trees, shrubs and perennials which you can choose from.


Here are three of my favourites. 

The Wildflower beauty Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ 

This beautiful frothy form of the ragged robin thrives in moist soil and the perennial is found in many native marshlands and wet areas. The Lynchis flow -cuculi which is most recognisable is the simple star-shaped native one, which has a single flower with deep rose pink, star shaped flowers each with 4 narrow segments. The ‘Jenny’ variety is a gorgeous one which blooms late Spring to early Summer and adds frothy pink flowers born high on long slender stems. It thrives in full sun or partial shade and grows to about 45cm in height and 45cm spread. Team with water loving grasses and ox-eye daisies -Leucanthemum vulgare-for that meadow feel.

The shrub for wet shade Hydrangea macrophylla

The Hydrangea macrophylla loves moist soil and is a gorgeous specimen for a damp, shady corner. The neat habit of the relatively small shrub makes it a wonderful choice for the smaller garden. It has such green foliage and strikingly white poppy flowerhead which brighten up a dark corner from June to October. These shrubs which generally grow to about 1metre in spread and height, flower for a long time and are even a great option for an informal hedge. An added bonus are the stems which are near black and a fantastic congrats to the white of the blooms. They also make stunning floral displays in the house.

Team with other white flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus ‘Virginal’-mock orange- for added scent and elegant colour. (Note: the Philadelphus will need slightly dryer conditions)

The showstopper tree Salix babylonica

Weeping willows are synonymous with ponds and absolutely love to have their roots in water. The tree Salix babylonica, which is also known as the Babylon willow or weeping willow is native to China and is beautiful deciduous tree which is known for its elegant weeping habit. These trees are large ones and will need plenty of space to thrive- often growing to 18 metres in spread and height so if you’re considering one of these make sure you have plenty of space to allow them to spread. Another factor to consider is to never plant these near underground pipes as the roots of the tree tend to seek out water pipes! 

Underplant with a pretty mix of Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’  and Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ which create a carpet of green and frothy pink.

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