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I'm trying to add some plants to our backyard that can do well in healthy soil that does get very marshy several times during the summer. It's an area that receives some sun and some shade - probably more shade than sun.

Our backyard has an area that becomes marshy when it rains heavily, which is maybe 10 days throughout the summer. A large, beautiful catalpa tree is growing near the front center of the yard and that tree shades much of the area as the sun moves throughout the day.

Behind that tree, there is a gentle dip in the yard all the way from one side of the yard to the other with small pebbles in the center of the dip. It's very straight, obviously man-made, and when we bought the house several years ago, the inspector of the property said it was a "natural drainage ditch" constructed to allow rainwater to run across the yard.

It was easy to see that all the back yards had the same construction and that the intention was for the water to run out the end of the last backyard on the block into the ditch on the street. And it worked that way for years with no problem.

You possibly can guess what happened. A new neighbor moved in to the house next to ours and blocked the drainage ditch a few years ago. Almost immediately, our backyard became a swamp during rainstorms. We explained to the neighbor how the ditch works and he said he didn't care. He didn't want all that rainwater running across his yard.

So now, we have two choices. We can block the ditch on the other side and flood our other neighbor's yard, or we can try to figure out what to do with a backyard that gets very marshy eight to ten times each spring and summer.

Two summers ago, when this started, I just tried to deal with the neighbor. Last summer, I started trying to add plants to our back yard to help the marshiness, partially blocked the other side, and reopened the blocked side in several wider places that were hard for him to re-block. We can't deal with all the water from the block, but we can deal with some. He didn't seem to notice that I'd reopened it.

The remaining problem is that the recurring marshiness is causing a lot of mud around that narrow ditch. I tried planting ferns and lilies around the ditch in the healthy soil to hold the soil in place and stop the muddiness from being so severe last year but they all died.

Does anyone know which types of plants do well in warm, northern Kentucky weather, just south of Cincinnati, when planted in good soil that gets marshy several times a year?

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    Check out Ilex verticillata - which has great winter forage benefit for birds. – That Idiot Jan 23 at 21:27
  • I will. Thank you very much. – Jamie Watts Jan 24 at 18:49
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I have a few suggestions that I know will work from personal experience. The first four are Kentucky natives:

  1. Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica). This is a plant that is incredibly resilient. It's often grown in marshes in full sun, yet I've seen it grown (and grow it myself) in dry full shade. When grown in sun it usually tops out at about 4 feet; in shade, it can grow as tall as 6-7 feet. One kind of drawback if grown in full shade is that the bottom leaves can kind of fall down, leaving it leggy. I don't see that in full sun. In your part shade yard I think it'll hold the leaves higher. Best planted in small clumps of 3 to 5 plants, IMO, if you have the room. For sources, try some native mail-order nurseries. Zones 3-8

  2. Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This plant typically gets about 3-4 feet high and will grow in both sun and part shade, and in both dry and wet soils (I actually grew it in full sun on a clay-soil hillside and it seemed to love it there). Unlike the wild native milkweed, this one does NOT run from the crown - it forms a nice clump. The species flowers are rosy pink and smell like vanilla. There is a white cultivar called Ice Ballet.

  3. Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris). This is a plant of river and stream banks that does very well in both part shade/shade and moist soil. It will live in dryer soils as well, but could go dormant during a drought. I have mine in moistish soil next to a manmade pond, where it gets only rain (I don't water my garden except during drought). It has large-ish yellow blooms in spring and will seed around if happy. Nice clumping/reseeding ground cover after it blooms.

  4. Turtlehead (Chelone glabra and C. lyonii hybrids like Hot Lips). These plants like it moist and will stand for an occasional flood. They also can handle dry shade well (especially the C. lyonii hybrids) and should do fine in your part-shade yard. They get about 3 feet tall and will spread rhizomatously, so not right for every situation (once they've spread they're not easy to get out from the yard).

These four suggestions will give you flowers at various points throughout the growing season, starting with Marsh Marigold, then Glade Mallow, Marsh Milkweed, and Turtlehead. All will handle part-shade to full shade.

Beyond these four natives, you should think Rain Garden plants. The list I've linked to shows both sun and shade and includes non-natives like Ligularia (an excellent choice, BTW). This list is general, but I think most of the plants listed should be fine in Kentucky. The Carex (Sedges) list will work very well as groundcovers (especially C. pensylvanica). You could try a local extension web site for more possible local suggestions.

A shrub to consider is Cletha alnifolia (there are many hybrids, varying in size, flower color, and form). They like it moist but also tolerate dry shade/part shade. I would plant these on the upper reaches of your flood plain, though. Also, be aware that cletha form clumps (they spread stoloniferously). They bloom in late July/early August in Wisconsin and may have good fall color.

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  • You have given me excellent suggestions and a great link to the Rain Garden plants site as well, so I want to thank you. I've never heard of the term "Rain Garden" before but it seems to be exactly what I have here, I think. – Jamie Watts Jan 24 at 18:55
  • Glad I could be helpful! – Jurp Jan 24 at 22:10
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There are quite a few plants that can handle a wet area, but in the shade narrows it down. There are four species of Cornus (Dogwood) that grow very well in wet area and can take part shade locations. These do not get the flowers that the tree dogwood gets. These do flower. All have clusters of white flowers followed with berries. Bright white berries. All have wonderful fall colour. Most have great colour bark in winter. Two of them are commonly called Red Twig Dogwood. These four Cornus are;

Cornus amomum or Silky Dogwood This dogwood thrives in wet conditions. Can tolerate full shade. It can grow anywhere from 6-12' tall. White/Yellow Flowers with White or Blue Berries. This one lacks fall colour and does not have colourful bark in winter.

Missouri Botanical - Silky Dogwood

Cornus racemosa or Grey Dogwood This dogwood tolerates in wet conditions. Can grow in part shade. Grows 10-12' tall. White flowers in spring, purplish-burgundy-red fall colour, white berries on red stems.

Missouri Botanical - Grey Dogwood

Cornus alba or Siberian Dogwood or Red Twig Dogwood Also tolerates wet conditions, grow in part shade, grows 4-7' tall, Fall colour is red-yellow, has white berries, has red stems in winter. The variety 'Sibirica' has the strongest bright red stems in winter.

Missouri Botanical - Cornus alba 'Sibirica'

Cornus sericea or Red Twig Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood is native to most of North America. It is a strong vigorous plant that can tolerate the most soil conditions, grow in part shade, get 6-9' tall, has red-yellow fall colour, has white flowers in spring, white berries in fall, the most range of stem colour based on the cultivar you buy. Some will have dark red stems or brilliant Red or yellow orange or Red-Yellow-Orange Stem colour. One of the best cultivars is called 'Cardinal' This is the one with the most brilliant colours of red, yellow & orange all winter long.

Missouri Botanical - Cornus sericea 'Cardinal'

Cornus sericea 'Cardinal' Cornus sericea 'Cardinal'

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  • All good suggestions, but note that some dogwoods (like Grey Dogwood) can spread to form large clumps. – Jurp Jan 23 at 21:38
  • Your right they all grow from stalks that comes directly out of the ground. I believe Missouri Botanical mentions C. alba being the one of less spreading of the red twig varieties. There are also other species called red twig, so it is important to look at the species names when making that purchase. Cornus sanguinea is not as wet tolerant. – GardenGems Jan 23 at 21:50
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    Yeah, knowing the species name is crucial with dogwoods. I lived with Greys for years - one plant became two, then two became four, etc. Excellent fall color where I lived, and the birds absolutely loved the berries.Could form a really nice "background" kind of hedge for the OP, with perennials in front. – Jurp Jan 23 at 21:53
  • Thanks for adding that. Greys is the one I am unfamiliar with. It was not one we sold at the nursery. – GardenGems Jan 23 at 21:55
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The coloured bark willows might be useful there; they need stooling hard every year in spring to keep them shrubby and to ensure production of the brightly coloured stems, which are at their best during winter. It seems they will grow in USDA zone 6, which Google tells me your area is. Salix alba 'britzensis' is commonly known as Coral bark willow https://www.pleasantrunnursery.com/plantname/Salix-alba-Britzensis. Salix alba 'vitelina' has bright yellow/orange stems. You may need to water during dry spells though - they really do prefer to be in pretty damp, not to say soggy, soil.

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