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There are some plants that demand good drainage: taxus, coreopsis, gaillardia and penstemon, to name a few. I have lost them all because they were poorly sited in the garden but now that I know where water is slow to drain I now where to plant those trees, shrubs and perennials that like wet environments. There is an up side to poor drainage for some plants, just be sure that water is available when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver.
Trees for wet areas include both common and not-so-common species. Of course I recommend finding some of the uncommon so that our landscapes move toward a more diverse mix of species instead of all river birch, sweetbay magnolia and pin oak.
Long time favorites (because of their adaptability in Kentuckiana landscapes) in the small tree category include the serviceberry and the deciduous holly. Both tolerate any kind of environment, really, but they make good candidates for wet areas. They reach about 20 feet in height and offer seasonal interest.
The serviceberry (Amelanchier) has early spring bloom that produces fruit that ripens to blue by early summer. The berries are tasty to people and to birds. Fall color in the named cultivars ‘Autumn Brilliance’ and ‘Princess Diana’ is excellent. The deciduous holly (Ilex decidua and Ilex verticillata) has clear green, small leaves; the females produce red or yellow berries in the winter, depending on the cultivar.
For larger trees you cannot beat the lacebark elm, black gum, sweet gum, swamp white oak, red buckeye, European black alder.
And, for something with a slightly different appeal try the larch, bald cypress or the dawn redwood. These trees have the appearance of needled evergreens but they are actually deciduous trees. Tall and stately, these three trees are not very fussy and qualify as something a bit different then the neighbors.
Willows, sycamores, catalpas, and eastern cottonwood should all be reserved for those who have more property. These are trees that have their place but they can become a nuisance in smaller landscapes because they are fast growing trees with roots that seek water and branching that becomes weak with age.
There are many shrubs that are considered moisture lovers and these are the perfect “down-spout” specimens for around the house. Forget about taxus and use clethra, itea, fothergilla, leucothoe, spice bush, buttonbush or the shrubby dogwoods Cornus sericea, Cornus amomum and Cornus alba.
I have some low areas in my perennial beds where the soil is very clayey so when it is wet it is very wet. My solution to these perennial dead-zones is choosing better plants suited to the environment. So far the mix of Siberian and Japanese iris are thriving; the cardinal flower and Joe Pye weed are more robust this year than ever; the ligularia has not wilted once this season; and finally I have worked some sedges and rushes into my landscape scheme.
Also be warned that if you are a perennial that likes wet areas, like purple loosestrife, gooseneck loosestrife and bog salvia, you may end up having a slight nuisance on your hands because these perennials can become somewhat invasive. In fact these plants are best in dry area because it keeps them in check.
One other tip when it comes to choosing plants for wet areas, look to the Latin name for clues. Latin epithets that suggest water loving include aquatica, palustris, uliginosa, fluvialis, limnophilus, natans, rivalis, riparius and lacustris.