Muck Lovers

Sometimes it’s just best to go with the inevitable. We’ve been fighting with the lousy drainage in my backyard for years and not getting results in proportion to the energy we’ve spent — certainly nothing lasting. I considered digging a pond, but the really wet, heavy, sticky clay soil was part of the original problem. Gardeners call it “two-spade soil” because you have to dig with one spade and scrape off its blade with another. Joe and I have worked on turning it over until we fell wheezing to our knees, and the progress was pitiful.
Of course, if we did dig a pond, we wouldn’t have to spend water on it; we’d just have to wait a week or so till it filled itself with seepage.
But it doesn’t take a pond.
Since we’d moved here I’d been struggling to keep a formerly healthy galangal alive. Nice plant; looks like a junior ginger, which I guess it is, judging by the look and taste of the root. You’ll find it in Southeast Asian recipes. A friend kept his in a pot in a tub of water, and it looked happy. So I set up the tub, put a few inches of water, the plant, and a Bt anti-mosquito cookie into it and all was well.
But the galangal looked lonesome. Maybe some native company?
The first time I saw yerba mansa in the wild — if we hadn’t been alone on the road when I hit the brakes I wouldn’t have lived to tell this. There was a boglet full of bladed leaves and the oddest blooms, like ghostly coneflowers with center and ray flowers all opaque white. We pulled over, then backed away from the killdeer nest I’d almost squashed, and grabbed the field guide. When I got my hands on a potted yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), it was in a geranium nursery of all places.
That thrived so that I had to divide it. It put out runners and planted itself in the soil by the tub — now that’s bad drainage. I got ambitious and bought a California hibiscus from a natives sale. A thrill: it’s returning after the winter dieback.
Now I have three tubs and uh-oh, more space. I’m not going to try cobra lily; Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores told us that the most successful Darlingtonia grower he knew made icecubes of distilled water and hung one in cheesecloth to drip over the plant daily. Evidently, setting the pot in just-distilled water is the secret to keeping most carnivorous plants alive .
If I get really ambitious I could try Darmera peltata, which we used to be able to call Peltiphyllum peltata, the streamside umbrella plant with those huge round leaves. That also seems to like running water, though. Maybe I could stack those tubs artfully, run tubing between them, and find a solar-powered recirculating pump . . . . Maybe next year.
If I were digging a pond, I’d move my yellow-eyed grass to the margin, though it’s OK where it is now, in the worst-drained bit out back. There are small cattails and sedges for small places, and tules for the large-scale ones. Scarlet monkeyflower, Mimulus cardinalis, likes wet feet and it’s handsome and easy. I don’t know how fussy its cousin Mimulus guttatus, seep-spring monkeyflower, would be, but it’s sometimes available and I like its looks. Sagittaria (arrowhead) and marsh potentilla aren’t sold just anywhere, but I’ve seen them in commercial nurseries.
I’ve seen great suggestions (including some of the above) on a native-plant listserv I was lucky to hear of; see how to add yourself to it at Judith Lowry in Bolinas and Peter D’Amato’s California
Carnivores (which I hear is expanding and moving to the Vintage Garden Nursery off Route 116 near Sebastopol) are good for local sales, and Stephen W. Davis’ www.carnivorousplants. looks promising.
I’ll admit I’m not a purist for natives. I couldn’t resist a Louisiana iris rhizome at the recent San Francisco Garden Show, because I have a sentimental attachment to Louisiana. I’ve actually been there only twice, but Oh, the music! The food! The landscape!
I’d forgo the iris if I lived near wildlands, I guess. I’d also definitely skip the mosquito fish, which are nonnative, voracious, and a threat to tadpoles; and Bt (kills dragonfly larvae, for one). Maybe I’d go look for dragonfly larvae, which are fierce enough to take care of mosquitoes and gorgeous when they grow up.

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