Get Your Feet Wet: Grow Wetland Herbs

Turn an “unusable” area into a wetland garden full of fragrant, beautiful, but often overlooked herbs.

| April/May 2000

  • Dawn unfolds gracefully over Glimmer Pond.
    Photographs by Geraldine Adamich Laufer
  • European brookline creeps over wet rocks.
  • Butterfly weed
  • Calla lilies
  • Iris ensata ‘Geisha girl’

Although most of our classic herbs not only don’t like wet feet but require well-drained soils, many herbs thrive in wetlands. These valuable, aromatic, ornamental—but often overlooked—plants can provide a new gardening adventure for herb lovers who may be tired of the plain and mundane, have an “unusable” wet area in their yards, or plan to install one or more new water features. Wet, open places; seasonally wet meadows; swamps and acid bogs; pond, lake, and stream banks; and other waterside areas offer diverse habitats that can support a variety of unusual herbs. A virtually unlimited supply of water together with a rich supply of nutrients and full sun provide the ideal opportunity for these plants to thrive.

Herbs that thrive in saturated soils may be herbaceous annuals, biennials, or perennials, trees or shrubs, bulbs, or vines. They inhabit a number of different ecological niches. Some plants remain submerged beneath the water surface while others float on it with no attachment to the soil below. Still others are rooted in the mud, but their stems and petioles grow up to the water’s surface. Emergents or marginal plants grow in shallow water 1 to 6 inches deep, but most of their vegetative growth is above it. Bog plants grow in soggy, spongy, organic soils that never dry out. A final group of herbs, which includes many familiar garden inhabitants, thrives in ordinary moist soils.

Pond pros and cons

I have been gardening with wetland herbs for eight years, ever since I fell in love with Glimmer Pond, our half-acre earth-bottom pond containing an estimated 350,000 gallons of crystal clear water collected from underground springs, rainfall, and runoff. Although dreadfully overgrown when I first saw it, the pond proclaimed its health noisily through the voices of resident bullfrogs, green frogs, and spring peepers, and more quietly by the presence of mud turtles, mosquito fish, salamanders, and many kinds of dragonflies. I wanted to include useful herbs and showy ornamentals in this natural environment.

I soon discovered that precious little had been written about pond management for either wetland herbs or ornamentals. Although I found some historical information about medicinal herbs growing in wetlands, contemporary literature from the Cooperative Extension Service focused exclusively on techniques to increase fish harvests. These brochures recommended herbicides to kill marginal plants around the edges of a pond and fertilizers to increase the amount of single-celled algae (fish food), which would turn the water pea green. Quite the opposite of my objectives!

I eventually learned the basics of plant selection, planting, and maintenance at a daylong symposium on water gardening held at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Ponds come in two basic types: earth-bottom ones such as Glimmer Pond and liner ponds. The latter type consists of a high-density prefabricated molded plastic form sunk into a hole of the same shape or a flexible sheet of butyl plastic 20 to 40 mils thick, draped in a hole of whatever shape you like. The plastic contains the water when a porous soil would cause it to drain away.

Planting an earth-bottom pond is a breeze. No soil preparation is required; either push plant roots down into the soft mud or smush them into a planting hole made with a trowel, then tap the surrounding mud back into place with your foot. Then stand back: growth is fast and exuberant.

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