I would love to get your advice about suitable shrubs and flowers that could bring some colour to a very wet and boggy patch in my garden. – AK, Co Sligo
A: As someone whose own formative experiences of gardening were shaped by having to grapple with the most unforgiving of heavy, poor-draining clay soils in a part of the country where rainfall is well above the national average, I know how much of a challenge this can be. Get it wrong and the casualties are high, with many plants succumbing quickly to the deadly combination of a cold, wet soil.
The trick, as it is with all good gardens, is to choose the species that have proven themselves more than capable of thriving in these kinds of growing conditions, or what’s known in gardening parlance as that winning formula of selecting the right plant for the right place.
For the same reason, it’s also important to note that there are different kinds of damp or wet gardens – from permanently wet plots that sit on the edges of natural peaty bogland and damp but never-sodden areas near the shady edges of woodland to gardens with clay soils that easily become waterlogged in winter and are slow to dry out and warm up in spring but then bake hard and crack in a summer drought. From what you’ve described, yours sounds like the first of these, a proper bog garden that remains wet but not permanently waterlogged.
Examples of tough, decorative perennials that should thrive in it include varieties of filipendula, ligularia, astilbe, aruncus, geum, rodgersia, primulas, snakewort (Liatris spicata), cultivated forms of loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), varieties of bistort or persicaria (Bistorta amplexicaulis), Salvia uliginosa, zantedeschia, many species of iris, trollius and many ferns including Osmunda regalis and Matteuccia struthiopteris.
Woody species include the shrubby dogwoods (varieties of Cornus alba and Cornus stolonifera), Salix daphnoides and Physocarpus opulifolius. Many of these are handsome, large-leafed species that can be combined to create pleasing contrasts of shape and texture as well as seasonal displays of colour.
It’s also well worth considering the idea of creating some sort of small garden pond in this part of your garden, as a way of amplifying its natural beauty and already wildlife-friendly habitat.
For an indispensable guide to practically but creatively gardening these kinds of horticulturally challenging areas, get your hands on a copy of the late, great English gardener and revered nursery owner Beth Chatto’s book on the subject, The Damp Garden: Moisture-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest. Written by perhaps the greatest expert on the subject, this gardening classic was first published in 1982 but is still considered the definitive guide to this day.