Rethinking the wet
by Laurel Schiller Dan Walton
This part of Florida, except for the coast, was once part of the most common plant community in the state called the Pine Flatwoods. It is characterized by acidic sandy soil that commonly has a hardpan layer 1 to 3 feet below the surface. This hardpan layer, which is highly impervious to water, causes the surface soils to be droughty during the dry season and saturated during the summer rainy season. This is what residents in older developments deal with .Wet areas have been created more recently in new developments and where older homes have been torn down and replaced by larger ones on higher ground. The problems are due to differences in elevation between homes as well as the construction of berms, swales and retention ponds to redirect and/or hold storm water on properties.
In a wet summer we see the results caused by the above drainage problems. It has been a really wet summer. Walking around the nursery has been an exercise in trying not to squash baby frogs. After all the talk about drought tolerant plants able to thrive on natural rainfall, lowering water tables, wells gone dry etc., we had an extremely wet summer.
For the first time in several years, it is possible to see or experience what standing, pooling water does to plants over time. Plants died that are not adapted to saturated soils (wet feet). Other plants are very unhappy. For months we have said to distressed customers over the phone "leaf spot", "fungal growth", "root rot", "branch dieback".
What to do? Such a season gives you an opportunity to inspect your property for the areas that are particularly prone to saturated or flooded soils during heavy summer rains. Don't modify your property by filling in or mounding low spots. Take advantage of these areas by incorporating plants that are adapted to flooding, but can also tolerate the dry conditions that may exist for much of the year. Native plants are particularly useful in this respect since a number of them have adapted to the wet/dry conditions that occur in our area.
Wet ground can be a plus in your homescape. It allows you to increase your plant diversity adding interest to your yard. If the water table is near or at the surface for much of the year, you can plant wetland species such as soft-stem bullrush, blue-flag iris, yellow canna lilies and various cordgrasses. Bald cypress, maples, and sweetgum all thrive in wetter soils inland. Along the coast buttonwood, both silver and green, do well in wetter areas. Wetland shrubs such as wax myrtle, Florida privet, coastal willow, Walter's viburnum, buttonbush and elderberry will create a different aesthetic and draw birds that frequent fresh water wetlands. The sides of wet swales, so often filled with dead or dying turf grasses, can be planted in native clump grasses that do very well and look lovely or low-growing mimosa that survives inundation for a few days at a time.
If your yard is wet, smile and enjoy it. Don't try to alter your growing place, instead alter your plant composition, and learn about dragonflies.