It doesn’t take much looking for plants to meet the dreaded phrase – grow in ‘well-drained’ soil. It sometimes seems like every tree or bush needs these mythic conditions. Look at many gardens, though, after a rain storm, and you will often find areas that are still wet and boggy 3 or 4 days later – the very definition of ‘poorly-drained’ soil, and death to many plants. You might be reading this blog because you already know you have wet areas needing trees, but if you aren’t sure exactly what ‘well-drained’ soil is, let’ look at that for a moment
Is My Soil Well-drained?
Take a spade and dig a hole about a foot deep, and about a spade’s width wide – exact measurement is not important. Fill the hole with water and let it drain away, to establish a baseline wetness. Now fill it again and put a measuring stick into it. Note the height of the water. Come back in an hour and note it now. Repeat in another hour, and perhaps one more time, if there is still water left. How fast did the water drain away? If it falls one inch an hour or more, your soil is ‘well-drained’. If not, and you are tree hunting, then read on. . .
Some Garden Areas are Often Wet
Obviously, areas beside water are going to be wet, and so are low-lying parts of a garden, especially if they are surrounded by higher areas. If you have sloping ground – even a small slope – don’t make the mistake of blocking that off by raising the ground across the bottom of the slope – leave an area for water to escape. If you have parts of your garden that are badly drained, you can, of course, improve that drainage by installing drains – it’s not so difficult or expensive, and it will pay dividends in the range of plants you will be able to grow. You can build raised beds too – even 6 inches above the ground will make a big difference to the health of your plants.
Going with the Flow
But easiest of all is to go with it, and simply choose plants that don’t mind having ‘wet feet’. Few things are more beautiful than a tree beside water, and if you have frontage on a river, lake or stream, then you have a wonderful opportunity to make it look even more beautiful than it already is. Be careful, though, to leave a clear view across the water, at least in part. Set your trees to frame the view, not block it out completely! Fortunately, there are many different trees that will grow in wet ground, and even with their roots right in water, and may are very beautiful.
Let’s look at some of these trees, starting with some evergreens:
American arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis – this tree, also called white cedar, is widely used as a hedging plant in cooler zones, since it is hardy even in zone 3, and all the way into zone 7. What is not so often realized is what an attractive upright specimen tree it makes if untrimmed. It develops a short trunk of shredding red-brown bark, and a slender, rounded crown reaching as much as 60 feet in time. It is incredibly long-lived, but relatively fast-growing when young. Alone or in clusters it looks great beside water, and you only have to see it growing in the wild in wetlands and swamps to realize just as well it grows in wet ground.
Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum – doing well in warmer areas (zones 5 to 9), and even in the deep south, the bald cypress is one of just a handful of conifer trees that loses its leaves in winter. A key tree in the Florida Everglades it likes nothing better than to stand in a few inches of water, breathing through its ‘knees’ – woody extensions of the roots that rise above the water lever to allow oxygen to the roots. If you can find it, race to plant the variety called ‘Ogon’, or the Goldrush Cypress, whose golden leaves make it one of the most attractive evergreens around – a real beauty.
Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum – this Mexican relative of the bald cypress is worth seeking out. Although only hardy in zones 8 or warmer – although worth a try in zone 7 – it will grow to 70 feet in 30 years, and rapidly develops a thick trunk with tons of character. It thrives in wet ground and standing water too, so it’s a great choice.
American holly, Ilex opaca – a broad leaf evergreen, the American holly is often overlooked for European trees and hybrids. This is a great shame, as it is one of the most beautiful evergreens available, with attractive foliage and a pyramidal growth pattern. Its only fault is to be a bit slow growing, but good things are worth waiting for. Growing it in a damp spot will make it happy, even in the hottest areas (it grows from zone 5 to 9).
Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana – evergreen magnolias are always popular, and the sweetbay is not only the hardiest, but also the happiest in wet ground. If you choose a hardy selection, like ‘Northern Belle’, for example, it will be evergreen even in zone 4, and your summers will be filled with fragrant white blossoms.
There are lots of deciduous trees that love water too.
Red maple, Acer rubrum – well-known as a shade tree with spectacular fall coloring, few realize just how much the red maple loves water. In the wild they can be found growing right in the water in swamps, so if you want a beautiful fall beside the water, this is the tree to choose. It hardy across the whole country, form zone 3 to zone 9, so it will grow for you, wherever you are.
River birch, Betula nigra – the beauty of a birch tree is only enhanced by being reflected in water, and these fast-growing trees are ab obvious choice for wet parts of any garden. Don’t worry, it is not affected by birch borer or other pests that have been the popular white birch rare, and it loves to be in wet ground. It is hardy at least in zone 4 and probably in zone 3 as well. If planted it wet ground it won’t suffer drought stress in hot areas, so it will grow well even in zone 9 – a real beauty with gorgeous multi-colored bark.
Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica – also called black gum, tupelo is a much more romantic sounding name, and sweet like honey. With handsome glossy leaves more like those of an evergreen, it makes a spectacular multi-colored fall showing of reds, purples and oranges – imagine that reflected in your lake. Happy in wet or flooded soil (see picture at the top), it is also hardy into zone 4, and its great pyramidal form looks perfect anywhere.
Willow, Salix – last on this list, but certainly not least, how can you have water without a willow? For cold resistance and striking beauty choose the golden weeping willow for its golden stems, but if that is too big for you (plant well away from buildings and underground services), go for the tri-color willow, Salix integra ‘Hakuro-Nishiki’, or the similar Flamingo willow. Both have amazing pink, white and green foliage in spring and early summer. Reaching about 20 feet if untrimmed, you don’t have to grow it as the ball it is often seen as – just let it go and soon you will have a handsome small tree. For a natural look, don’t overlook the pussy willow, Salix caprea, with its fat, furry silver buds – another great choice for quick growth on wet ground.
You can see that there is no shortage of trees for wet places, so start planning and planting, because trees and water go together.
***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.