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Making the Most of Damp Garden Habitats

Making the Most of Damp Garden Habitats
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© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017

However keen a gardener you might be, it is likely that there are moments when you wish you had less gardening to face every weekend.  We all experience times when the amount of gardening that simply must be done, has completely outgrown the time available.  If you have sometimes reached this crisis point you may even have taken drastic measures and installed the dreaded decking to make life easier.

Even the most dedicated wildlife gardeners may venture down this route to reduce maintenance and allow themselves more time to actually appreciate the creatures that visit their garden.  Wildlife gardening can involve just as much work as a more conventional approach and we all know that gardening is one of those activities that expands to fill the time available.  So for most of us, making our gardening tasks easier for ourselves is something we have uppermost in our minds.

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One way to reduce work in the garden is to make sure that you garden within your own local conditions and this includes making the most of your soil.  It makes complete sense, if you have clay, not to attempt to grow plants that need free draining conditions unless you are prepared for the extra work that this will involve.  And again if your soil is sandy or chalky, avoid plants that only thrive in a moisture retentive soil.  This is what I like to think of as ‘gardening with nature’ and in the long run, this approach can save much heartache and frustration for all concerned, not to mention dead plants.  But there is another advantage to this approach if you do garden for wildlife.  Emulating the conditions round about your garden, especially if you are in a more rural situation, is likely to encourage wildlife from your boundaries into your plot, where there may be a similar range of plants.  Many creatures will travel to find the conditions they require, but there are distances beyond which some, especially insects and other invertebrates, are unlikely to venture. 

Applying this rule to my own garden became crucial a few years ago when I moved house and became the proud owner of a wet garden.  My previous garden in Oxfordshire was on a band of greensand, which crosses the south-western corner of the county and was the most free draining plot I have ever had.  Not a drop of water ever lay on the ground, even after torrential rain, and the free draining nature of the soil made gardening a challenge.  Lavender grew and seeded around and other Mediterranean plants thrived but it was frustrating that I was unable to grow some of my favourite wildflowers, including purple loosestrife and meadowsweet, except in the margins of my pond.  I developed a distant vision for the future of a damp meadow full of scented cream ‘queen of the meadow’ (one of meadowsweet’s vernacular names) and lady’s smock, taking my inspiration from the RHS garden at Rosemoor in North Devon, where they have made spectacular use of their wet lawns by allowing wildflowers that prefer these conditions to grow with abandon.   The result there in late spring is a spectacular wet meadow effect, awash with orange tip butterflies that use the lady’s smock as a larval food plant.

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Using drainage wisely There is always a great temptation to consider drainage in a damp garden, but before you move down that road it really is worthwhile thinking about the conditions within which you can happily work.  Installing land drains in wet ground can be very expensive and does not always solve the problem fully, so where possible it is best to plan your garden (if you can) around the confines of your local conditions.  If you do find that a certain amount of drainage is a necessity, do make sure that you utilize the displaced water if you possibly can, making good use of every advantage that water in the garden can bring.  As responsible gardeners, water conservation is uppermost in our minds and there is nothing more frustrating in dry weather than remembering the wet days of winter as the sun beats down on your precious plants.  If you are installing drainage of any type you could consider an underground tank plus pump to store water for use during dry weather. 

Although I was perfectly happy with the large area of wet clay soil that was to become my long-imagined damp meadow, full of wildflowers and butterflies, the new vegetable plot proved to be the wettest area of all, with water draining from fields around, through the beds and into a natural pond in the farmland next door.  The first summer brought a fantastic crop of quick growing salads, French and broad beans and root crops, all thriving on soil that always had just a touch of moisture under the surface even during the driest spells.  No watering needed here.   However the winter brought to light the extent of the wetness in this area and a remedy was needed to ensure that winter crops, including leeks and parsnips, did not spend months with their roots in water sodden soil.  Some form of drainage was certainly going to be essential but although my damp vegetable garden clearly needed some ‘adjustment’ to the conditions I was certainly not willing to return it to the bone-dry soil of Oxfordshire.  The answer was to create a natural looking bog garden with a small stream running through it.  After looking closely to ascertain where the water was entering the garden, and how it was moving through the soil, I then dug a ditch about 40 centimetres deep and 60 cms wide in an area above the vegetable beds to catch the water draining down the gentle slope.  This ditch or stream now wends its way to the pond in the adjacent field, its ultimate natural destination.  The joy of this new situation is that the soil either side of the channel is damp enough to create a narrow bog garden – now full of wildlife friendly moisture-loving plants such as candelabra primulas, iris, loosestrife and bergamot, all grown cheaply from seed.  A grassy patch above the bog garden has snakeshead fritillaries, cowslips and lady’s smock – the latter appearing of its own accord from long dormant seeds in the clay soil.  And my vegetable plots are now simply moist in even the wettest weather.

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This inexpensive and easy solution to what could have been an expensive problem is a good example of working with whatever garden conditions you have.  Wet and boggy lawns, which are sodden in winter but dry in summer, can be transformed by planting in plugs of moisture loving wildflowers, especially cowslips and lady's smock which will thrive and spread in these conditions.  Bugle too is an easy plant to establish and the combination of yellow cowslips and deep purple bugle spikes is hard to beat.  Fritillary bulbs can be planted in the autumn along with plugs of ragged robin, lady’s smock, meadowsweet and meadow buttercup, if you don’t already have it.  An area such as this should be allowed to grow in the spring until July or August, then cut to 5 to 10 cms.  Allow the cuttings to dry and then rake off carefully.  From then on until your mowing finishes, you can continue to cut to keep the area tidy if you wish.

My dream meadow, created from scratch, was another perfect solution for such a wet garden.  The area, which now boasts expanses of common spotted orchid interspersed with bird’s foot trefoil, ragged robin, common knapweed and wild carrot, was created in bare soil with a seed mix designed for clay soil.  Sowing into clay of this type, as you may well know if you have ever experienced such difficult soil, involved creating a tilth and sowing at exactly that moment between friable soil and concrete – a point which most gardeners with clay will know well!  The solution to this difficult soil however has been perfect.  It is now covered with vegetation, and only needs cutting and raking to keep it in shape.  Further plug plants of devil’s bit scabious, water avens and of course more meadowsweet have been added. 

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Moving to a garden with a heavy clay soil may seem daunting to many people after easy-to-dig sand, but I am happy to forego the ease of cultivation for the joys that more moisture retentive soils bring.  Superior vegetables that never need a drop of water, a permanently green lawn, a new bog garden, the beauty of a tinkling stream where water cress is the next experiment, and a beautiful meadow full of wildlife.  Give me a damp garden any day! 

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