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Try creating a wetlands patch in the soggy area of your yard

Published October 3, 2003

Lately it seems we either have too much rain or too little. After a couple of weeks of rain in early September, it didn't take but one weeklong "dry spell" for my yard to dry out. A brief rain was enough to water the grass and plants, but left me longing for more.

Some people naturally have more water on their property, and in Florida it's not unusual for a homesite to have wetlands. Many yards can support a backyard wetland that benefits you and your community. Letting runoff from your roof, parking area and lot slowly filter through a mini-wetland helps prevent pollution of neighboring creeks and may help prevent flooding.

Low areas that remain wet or damp much of the year are the easiest places to establish wetlands. Any depression that collects rainwater or runoff from downspouts or serves as the drainage path of water leaving your yard is an excellent spot to add low-maintenance wetland plants.

There will no longer be a damp area where your mower gets bogged down because no mowing will be necessary. This area will also attract wildlife and filter the water draining off of your property.

If you do not have a naturally occurring area, you can create an area the same way you would create a backyard pond. It's important to keep excess fertilizers and pesticides off your lawn and other areas feeding into the wetland.

If you have soil that naturally holds water such as clay, your job will be easier. You can block part of an existing drainage way or dig a shallow basin.

Most of us have sandy soil, so one more step is necessary. Dig a shallow depression and bury a plastic liner as if creating a backyard pond.

How long the area stays flooded or wet during the growing season is the key to the types of plants to use. If runoff will not naturally keep the area wet enough, you will need to supply water occasionally. Think about collecting water in rain barrels.

If you partly block a drainage way, make sure you are not blocking a city or county drainage way. Check with local officials before beginning your project. Also make sure you will not affect a neighbor's property.

As with any landscape project, plan ahead. Be aware of the microclimate in the wetland area. Is it sunny or shady, and how many months of the year will it be wet? How much maintenance do you want to provide? Answering these questions will help you decide on the plants.

If you are looking for a large tree, the bald cypress grows to 50 or more feet and tolerates flooding and drought. Or the Florida elm grows up to 60 feet and endures intermittent flooding. A smaller tree or evergreen shrub, the wax myrtle, grows to 20 feet and endures longstanding water. Many maples also will survive in a wetland environment. The American elm is another possibility.

Shrubs to consider: St. John's Wort grows in intermittent floods of 3 to 6 feet. Showy yellow flowers appear in late spring to fall. Willows, both the tree and shrub varieties, like to have their feet wet. Pickle weed and water lilies will give you vegetation closer to the ground or water level. Check with the cooperative extension service to make sure you are not planting invasive plants.

Moving on to other areas of your yard, especially those dry areas, you may want to think about adding portulaca. This is a plant that seems to do well no matter what the season or climate.

I have plants blooming now that have been in my yard for more than four years, and I have another grouping that I planted about six weeks ago that has absolutely gone crazy. It has covered a large area in the front yard that was previously bare with a multitude of hot pink flowers.

To make it easy on myself this fall and winter, I plan on using a lot more portulaca. It quickly establishes itself then requires no supplemental watering except, if rain has been absent, when you water your lawn once a week. I very seldom fertilize.

"Portulaca Sundial Peach" is doing great in my back yard. The unique, glowing peach color is unmatched, and the flower size is a large 2 inches.

The thick leaves and stems retain water so that the plants are quite drought tolerant once established in the full sun garden. My portulaca made it through both the hot, dry and the hot, humid, wet summer this year.

You can also use portulaca in a container garden, where it adds color around the edges of the pots. It is such an inexpensive, colorful, low-maintenance addition to any garden, I hope you give it a try. Sometimes we overlook those plants that have been around what seems like forever.

- Mary Collister writes about how to garden successfully in Florida's climate and offers problem-solving tips for your home garden. Mail questions to: Mary Collister, North of Tampa, 14358-B N Dale Mabry Blvd., Tampa, FL 33618.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 11:55:16]

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