Q. We have a high water table, and I am looking for a natural way to make the lawn drier so the kids can play on it. I did some research and weeping willows and junipers seem to be high water absorbing plants. Do you have any other suggestions?
- --Ravi in Blue Bell, PA
- ---Phillip in Western Tennessee
- ---Bill in Westmont, NJ
So: Are some trees giant sump pumps? Or are they just trying to move enough water away from their roots to be able to breathe again for a bit? Either way, there are real physical limits as to how much water any tree can absorb. When people talk about planting things like willows, eastern red cedar, bald cypress and river birch in wet spots, they're mostly naming the handful of trees that won't die when their roots stay wet for extended periods of time.
That said, those are the big four; all grow in a wide range of climates and can survive dry spells, which is important; a lot of spots that "always stay wet" are actually pretty dry in the summer. So if you want a big spectacular tree in the landscape, like for that church lawn, a moisture lover will likely thrive there. And Mindy Maslin, Project Manager for the Pa. Horticultural Society's "Tree Tenders" program, says that based on her experience, the right tree in the right place might well make the surrounding area a little drier.
But the only sure cure for a wet lawn is to dig it up and install the drain tiles that should have been put in place the first time.
Q. I would like to amend my back yard so that the water drains more slowly to the Brandywine watershed and creates more habitat for wildlife. But I don't know what to plant. It becomes a creek periodically, but gets very dry in summer. I've thought of just "letting it grow" into a meadow but am concerned about weeds. Any suggestions?
- ---Gerallyn in West Chester, PA.
- ---Lalasa in Roslyn, PA
- ---Francis in Clark County, Ohio
- ---Michael in Newtown, PA
One of the hot new trends in green landscaping, rain gardens aren't ponds and don't depend on big trees to suck up moisture. As Mary Ellen Noonan, a degreed agronomist working as Environmental Educator for the Bucks County PA Conservation District explains, they are a type of garden design that uses a systematic set of plantings to lessen the pollution and erosion impact of heavy rain on our fragile waterways. From a homeowner's perspective, they slow down the deluge in a way that preserves the rest of your landscape and creates a horticultural focal point.
Although Mary Ellen touts her rain gardens in Pennsylvania, the trend began in Maryland, quickly became popular in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and works just about anywhere. Her ideal rain garden is not located where the puddle problems are now, but in a nearby spot with better drainage, where the water from your downspouts and/or neighboring runoff can be directed.
But Patricia Pennell, Program Director for Rain Gardens of Western Michigan, likes to install the garden right in the problem spot. You just have to excavate a lot of the existing soil during a dry stretch, she explains. (If you think a rain garden is something you'd like to explore, visit their web site; it contains an amazing amount of detailed information.)
Either way, the plan is for future excess water to be captured in the plant-filled, saucer or bowl shaped depression you will create, and then drain slowly into the sub soil.
And the plants? You have many options. Here are a few examples that both of our experts highly recommend:
- Real moisture lovers like turtle head and blue flag iris in the wet middle.
- For the intermediate area, in-betweeners like cardinal flower and Joe-pye weed.
- Then tough plants like Echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan on the often-dry edges.