Bog Gardens

This page provides: Instructions and species for bog/water gardens including my experience. See here for a list of other species encountered.

     Warning: Just like ‘water’ gardens aren’t trying to recreate with 100% faithfulness the plant communities in and around bodies of water, the use of ‘bog’ garden here does not refer to a specific native community either. Instead, bog gardens in the home landscape offer a space where one can extend the types of plants grown, in this case-extending to plants that require damp to wet soil, without full or constant inundation.

     When thinking about what native plants to put in your landscape, see my thoughts on ‘Sense of Place’ and ‘Acquiring Natives’.

     From early days rearranging rocks in our mountain springs, catching spring lizards (salamanders, to non-western North Carolinians) and crawdads, to early adulthood living briefly on Lake Fontana, I’ve always been fascinated by water, water bodies and their inhabitants.

     My childhood was punctuated with visits to the spring that fed our house by gravity flow, the lake (ok, small pond really-but you know how childhood memories are), rivers (Tuckaseegee, Little Tennessee, Little Pigeon in Tennessee-see Slidability) and larger lakes (Fontana, Santeetlah). Water permeates the culture I grew up in, too -- with people being from 'creeks' (Kirkland's, Alarka, Deep, etc.) as opposed to roads or neighborhoods. Whether I was immersed in the water -- we were a swimming family with Mom teaching swim lessons and me helping -- or on the banks exploring, I came to love being in the water and watching for signs of life along the way.

     Later, I discovered high elevation mountain bogs. These magical places hold pitcher plants, sphagnum moss and lots of other interesting and rare flora and fauna. While working at the Native Plant Garden surrounding Highlands Biological Station, I met Darwin Thomas, exploring the garden with his son and focused on the many carnivorous plants we grew there. Darwin worked for WCU, but grew carnivorous plants on the side as a hobby (you’d say “some hobby” if you’d ever seen his backyard!). He taught me how to grow these amazing plants in containers and we have shared our mutual enthusiasm for years now.  He probably doesn’t receive the credit he deserves for getting people interested and supplied, thus, I must credit him here. His verbal instructions to me and visits to his garden to see his in-ground bogs certainly greatly informed the development of mine!!

     So, in days before I owned a house, water and bog gardens were constructed in pots. Since I’m a bit of a lazy gardener, everything had to overwinter-no carrying pots inside for me! As we moved into our house and wanting to transition everything out of pots, my husband dug out space for 3 water gardens and one huge surrounding bog.  Boy, did he ever win husband points for that! Since those days, I’ve watched as the gardens attracted 4 frog species, numerous dragon/damselfly species, butterflies, snails, birds and really interesting little creatures I can’t always ID. In winter, the gardens can be seen from inside the house and stand as regular watering holes for wildlife, primarily birds.  Recently, I watched sparrows, chickadees, juncos and titmice (plural of titmouse?) stand on the rotting vegetation and bathe.

How do you construct a bog garden?
     The bog is about 17” deep with a liner. About 7-9 inches up from the bottom, small slits were cut into the liner to prevent too much standing water. The idea is that with this soil mix, the water will wick from the bottom, but the often shallow rooted plants won’t be sitting in water all the time. Soil is made using 1/2 peat, 1/2 sand (construction sand-not too fine). After placing the soil in, water well and let sit for a week or more while you continue to water and let settle.  After that, place the plants and try to establish areas where living sphagnum can get started (needs good sunlight).  While bog gardens can be constructed in part-shade, they’re more successful in full sunlight.

     I suspect that bogs need to be replanted in 4-7 years.  Over time, as the bog grows in, roots suck up enough of the water to make the bog run through water quickly. In 2011, my husband and I replaced all the peat/sand in my bog and replanted after carefully removing the species of interest. We estimate it had been there for 6, maybe 7 years. To my surprise, the neighboring river birch had managed to grow a 2.5” diameter root into one end of the bog! No wonder they’re so successful near river banks in native habitat! While the birch certainly had an effect, my lack of weeding hadn’t helped as the bog "grew its hair out" as my grandmother used to say. In the early days of my first in-ground bog, I had it 90% covered with living sphagnum moss. Over time, as I added plants, it became more of a challenge to weed what with propagules and all. And truly, being a long-maned person myself (at least in the past), I really wanted to just enjoy growth toward ‘long-haired’ status.

Here is a list of species in bog and water gardens:

T=Easily available in the horticultural trade
ST=Available with specialized horticulturists
NA=Not available in the horticultural trade

Water Garden Plants

  1. Lotus spp. (non-native)    1’-2’ tall leaves, flowers taller. Lovely flower                                              with winter bouquet interest with seed pod.  Every 3-4 years, you will need remove it, split it up and compost or give away the remainder. After dividing, it may take two years to bloom.
  2. Equisetum hyemale Horsetail or scouring rush (native T)   1’-4’ stems. I keep this one restricted in a pot submerged 1-2” in the water garden. It is possible to plant this in the bog garden, but this plant can be invasive.  Here, I can control it. It’s a great teaching plant since it is ancient, has an unusual leaf structure, is a spore producer and contains silica in its stems/leaves. Wonderful in bouquets year ‘round or as a gift- small short (3-5”) bunches makes nice scouring pads for pans.
  3. Orontium aquaticum Golden club (native T)   6”-1’ tall.  This plant is containerized within the water garden and barely submerged. It will grow in less damp soil, too. This plant has wonderful hydrophobic leaves and is a member of the Araceae (spadix with no spathe) related to Jack-in-the-pulpit. If you get seeds, just drop them in the soil of the bog garden to get germination.
  4. Nymphaea odorata White water lily (native, with some dispute T)   No height out of the water except the bloom. Who doesn’t love a water lily-overwinters easily and blooms all summer long if the plant is happy (full sunlight).
  5. Saururus cernuus Lizard’s tail (native T)    1’-3’ tall. This plant grows colonially in watery ditch lines all over the lowcountry regions of the southeast. Containerized, it can be controlled, but it tends not to play well with others. Just this year, I’ve moved it to a container of its own so that the massive rhizomes don’t compete with the rest of my plants.
  6. Potamogeton diversifolius  Waterthread pondweed (native NA)  0.5-1.5” leaves-floating aquatic. This small leaved plant will likely never catch on with water garden enthusiasts. I first encountered this plant in the Upstate of SC, likely having overlooked it for years. For bonsai or desktop ecosystem enthusiasts, this could make an incredible addition to the display. A monocot, its flowers are well, in the words of botanical texts, ‘insignificant’. But, they emerge most beautiful from the water nonetheless!
  7. Utricularia gibba  Humped bladderwort (native NA) Mostly noticeable as a mass of green threads just under the surface of the water. If the mass is significant enough and the rest of the environmental triggers are in place, this plant will send up flowering shoots once a year. I suspect this plant will also never come into acceptance in the horticultural trade. In my experience, this plant devours young mosquito larvae, making it highly desirable in my garden, nonetheless!

Bog Plants

  1. Sarracenia flava  Tall yellow pitcher plant (native ST)   1’-2’ tall. An amazing plant in nature, this does quite well in bog gardens that are either in ground or in pots. The plant provides interest throughout the seasons-from early spring with the blooms that emerge before the traps are fully formed, to tall, elegant traps present from May onward to the winter leaves lacking traps. If you have kids, sacrifice one trap during the summer months and cut it open all the way to the bottom. Parse out the contents and see if you can identify ants, beetles, bees, etc. Lastly, of course the traps make lovely arrangements either fresh or dry.
  2. S. rubra   Red pitcher plant (native ST)  6”-1’ tall. Another amazing shorter pitcher plant.
  3. S. minor Hooded pitcher plant (native ST) 5-10” tall. This pitcher plant has a more specialized trap than the previous two. On the back side of the top of the trap, there are clear or white ‘panes’ in the epidermis. This allows light to pass through. An unsuspecting fly who manages to crawl into the trap, then repeatedly flies to the light through these panes. Since the top lip of the trap is below the entry, the fly has difficulty exiting, tires from flying at the light and becomes food for the plant.
  4. S. purpurea Frog’s britches (native ST) 1-6” tall. This short pitcher plant lays flat against the ground unless the growth is so prolific that the traps are held upright. This is one of my favorites-since I initially encountered it in high elevation mountain bogs. What a common name-would love to see a frog wearing these!
  5. Eupatorium perfoliatum   Common boneset (native ST).  2-5’ tall. While the flowers on this plant aren’t stunning, the foliage is superb! As the name suggests, the stem appears to puncture through the leaves. The whole plant has terrific texture-from the surface of the leaves to the hairy stem. And while the flowers are not show stoppers, they are heavily visited by quite a large number of bees, butterflies and beetles. Interestingly, I almost lost this plant in my bog to what I believe was a little chemical warfare going on between it and Rudbeckia laciniata.
  6. Rudbeckia laciniata  Sochan (Cherokee name), Green-headed coneflower (native T). 2-7’ tall. Green lynx spiders seem to love the flower heads of this plant, which makes perfect observation platforms for inquiring naturalists. In early spring, this is one of the main Cherokee edible plants (pot-herb) that is prepared carefully, boiling several times while tossing off the pot liquor each time. In the bog, it’s right at home and can get a bit invasive if allowed. As mentioned above, I think this plant is a bit allelopathic, pushing its competitors out of the way. However, it’s a great plant in the background, adding to the fullness of the bog.
  7. Asclepias incarnata  Red milkweed (native T). 1-4’ tall. Dead easy to grow from seed, this is one of my favorite milkweeds. Monarchs love it-one year I had 25 caterpillars feeding off four groups of these! I grow these in my bog and in my regular flower beds. They are so much more robust in the bog and don’t seem to suffer from the aphids that obliterate the others in mid season.
  8. Oxypolis rigidior Rigid cowbane (native NA) 1-4’ tall. A member of the parsley family, I’ve noticed swallowtail larvae on this occasionally. The original start of this plant came from my family property in NC and I’ve kept it going ever since. I don’t recall ever seeing this one in the hort trade, but it is one of my favorites along lakesides.
  9. Chelone glabra Turtlehead (native T) 1-4’ tall. There certainly are more showy species (C. lyonii) and some named varieties, but I like this one. Reknowned as a larval host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot, butterfly, I have never witnessed this. But, I only have a single plant and frankly, have yet to see it bloom! I promise to write more later as the plant grows.
  10. Eriocaulon decangulare Tenangle pipewort (native ST). 1-8” tall. A friend gave me this plant perhaps accidentally in another plant given to me. I just adore it! Most of the year, it sits there looking like a grass-and then in May begins to put out stems with a white head attached. Obviously a monocot, this interesting plant lives up to its other common names-hat pins.
  11. Ludwigia alternifolia    Seed Box (native ST) 1-5’ tall. Just as its common name suggests, this plant produces a seed pod shaped like a small box. The foliage is green tending toward red in fall and along the edges in the spring/summer. Flowers bloom and last but a single day, the petals falling off one by one. The remaining sepals go on to form the ‘box’ that persists into deep winter, making this a great dried plant specimen.  Truly one of my favorites.
  12. Iris virginica   Virginia iris (native T) 1-3” tall.  I notice this plant when I visit my mother-in-law who lives along the coast in NC. The ditchlines there are covered with it and I long admired it. While I truly enjoy the day-lasting blooms, it is a plant that one has to keep in line! It has quite a tendency in my bog to want to grow everywhere. The good news is that I can severely cull it one year and then don’t have to touch it for at least another two years.
  13. Osmunda cinnamomea  Cinnamon fern (native T) 1-4’ tall. What a great fern this is! The spore stalks in early spring are amazing and the fronds are wonderful in bouquets. What’s not to love about this fern?!

There are lots of other species one can plant in bogs/water gardens. 

© Karen C. Hall, 2010