In Florida, it’s no secret that many of us have yards that back up to retention ponds, waterways, or have low spots that never seem to drain. Instead of forcing grass to grow in these hard-to-manage areas, why not create a garden bed using plants that like the extra water and require less maintenance and chemicals?
Garden beds at the edge of the water not only enhance the aesthetics of your yard, but also are extremely beneficial to the environment and wildlife. If your yard is at the edge of a pond or river, it’s ideal to create a 10’ maintenance-free zone between the water and your landscape—one which needs no mowing, fertilizers, or pesticides. This can be an area that is left un-mowed and completely natural, or a landscaped garden bed that is planted with natives and Florida-friendly plants which like the extra water. This area will help slow the runoff of yard debris and chemicals into the water system as well as provide habitat for wildlife.
Creating a landscape that will be happy along the water or in a wet spot in your yard is simple when using the right plants for the location. Water loving trees help provide shade as well as homes for wildlife. Some native varieties that can handle the wet are: river birch, dahoon holly, and coastal plains willow (a less messy alternative to the weeping variety and is a host to the Viceroy butterfly). Southern magnolia, bald cypress, and maples love moist soil, but don’t plant them next to the house or driveway because they grow very large, and the roots can buckle concrete.
Marginals are plants that like to grow right at the water’s edge, providing protection and food for waterfowl and other wildlife. They need no fertilizing and require little maintenance. A few water-loving native marginals are pickerel weed, duck potato, Louisiana iris, and the carnivorous pitcher plant. Anise, an evergreen shrub, is an excellent native for a natural fence in an area prone to staying wet. Sweetshrub, buttonbush, and itea are hardy, deciduous native shrubs for the shady wet areas. Joe-pye weed, cardinal flower, and swamp hibiscus are wonderful water-loving perennials for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. All these wet-loving marginal plants will also grow well in a regular garden bed; they are just more prolific when given that extra moisture.
Make sure to research your plants before you buy, as some of these can get quite large but have dwarf varieties on the market. Remember when planting in the yard to not plant in the swale, which is the long shallow ditch used to help drain the yard. Planting in the swale will block the flow of draining water and can cause more flooding throughout the yard. For more tips and ideas on how to make your yard more Florida Friendly check out St. Johns River Water Management District and UF IFAS Extension.