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Sunday - March 21, 2010

From: Fairfield, NJ
Region: Northeast
Topic: Rain Gardens, Water Gardens, Compost and Mulch, Edible Plants
Title: Plants for floodplain in Fairfield, New Jersey
Answered by: Amy Johnson and Barbara Medford


I have an easy question for you... I hope... We just moved into the floodplains of NJ in Fairfield and are interested in some plants. We would like to know what plants are best suited to grow in floodplains - those plants that thrive in these conditions as well as drink up a lot of water to limit the flooding! My wife also likes to garden so any fruits and Vegetables that you can recommend would be great!


Unfortunately, your question, far from being easy, falls into the category we call "problems plants can't solve." We hope you very carefully studied the situation before you moved into a floodplain; far more damage than to your garden could be done by a flood. You should have been fully advised of the situation and of the probability of a flood before you took possession of the property. What we can do is try to give you some advice on how to deal with a very wet situation (but not underwater) and hope you don't have to deal with the underwater part.

To begin with, instead of referring to it as a floodplain, try calling it a Rain Garden. Sounds better, can be very lovely, and is a widely used technique for areas that are often wet.  From a previous Mr. Smarty Plants question on this subject:


We have a How-To-Article Water Gardening that will give you some ideas on how to treat this area, but that is not exactly what you want. What you want is a wetland or a rain garden, with plants that can both withstand dry weather as well as having their feet in standing water for a short period. The rain garden is not only a way to deal with streams of rain water and with saturated soil, but also helps to filter out pollutants and filter the water before it goes rushing off to lakes and your water supply. Here is an article from Rain gardens of West Michigan with some basic information to get you started thinking in that direction. 

The best reference source we found was from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Rain Gardens, a How-To Manual for Homeowners. It is fairly lengthy, and probably involves more than you actually need or want to do for your problem area, but it has good explanations of why a rain garden is important to water and soil conservation and quality of our water supply, while giving you an attractive, useful area in your yard.

And, finally, this website Native Rain Gardens makes our point about native plants. In the same vein, please read our How-To Article A Guide to Native Plant Gardening. We discovered that there are two Fairfield Townships in New Jersey, one in Essex County and one in Cumberland County, clear across the state from each other, so we will not be able to be quite as precise as we usually are about what part of the state our selected plants are native to. Our next step is going to be selecting grasses, shrubs, trees and herbaceous blooming plants that  tolerate wet feet, are perennial and are native to both areas in New Jersey. Follow the links to the webpage on each individual plant to learn more about the soil the plant prefers, expected size, color and time of bloom, etc. 

We don't know exactly what your elevation is, how the land drains (away from the house, toward the house, etc), and what structures might be in the path of the drainage. From a distance, it is impossible to give you any more specific advice, but if you follow the links in the above reference in Rain Gardens in West Michigan, you will come to a section in "Getting Started" called "Choose the right place for your rain garden." As you read the various pieces of information, you will realize you are going to have to do some digging, possibly amending impermeable clay soil, in the depression you have selected to be your rain garden, with organic material such as compost, and mulch.

We will search our Native Plant Database for plants that tolerate wet soils and are native to New Jersey. The plants themselves will not "drink up" the excess water, only the soil can do that, but will help with flooding and runoff. Before we forget, while some of the plants we select may have edible parts, in actuality, just about all of the fruits and vegetables that you would find in the grocery store are either non-native to North America or are so hybridized that their origins are unknown. Check with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension County Office for Cumberland County or Essex County, whichever applies, for more help with food gardening. Follow each plant link to our page on that plant to find out more about size, light requirements, etc.  These are all attractive garden plants that will function well in a rain garden, but if you would like more choice, go to our Native Plant Database, and do a Combination Search, selecting the characteristics and habits that you feel apply, in terms of Light Requirements, moisture of soil, etc. 


Herbaceous blooming plants for wet soils in New Jersey:

Chrysopsis mariana (Maryland goldenaster) - 1 ft. tall, blooms yellow August to October, sun

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinalflower) - 1-6ft., blooms red May to October, sun, part shade or shade

Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm) - 3 ft., blooms red May to October, sun or part shade

Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) - to 6 ft., non-flowering, sun, part shade or shade

Shrubs for wet soils in New Jersey: 

Gaylussacia baccata (black huckleberry) - 1 to 2 ft., blooms white, pink May to July, sun, part shade or shade

Hibiscus moscheutos (crimsoneyed rosemallow) - 3-6 ft., blooms white, pink May to July, sun, part shade or shade

Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm) - 3 ft., blooms red May to October, sun or part shade

Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) - to 6 ft., non-flowering, sun, part shade or shade

Trees for wet soils in New Jersey:

Betula populifolia (gray birch) - 35 to 50 ft., sun, part shade or shade

Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic white cedar) - 40 to 75 ft., evergreen, part shade

Ilex opaca (American holly) - 25 to 60 ft., evergreen, sun, part shade or shade

Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) - to 100 ft., sun, part shade or shade

Grasses and grass-like plants for wet soils in New Jersey:

Andropogon glomeratus (bushy bluestem) - 2-5 ft., full sun essential

Calamagrostis canadensis (bluejoint) - 3-5 ft., sun, part shade or shade

Carex stipata (owlfruit sedge) - 2-3 ft., sun, wet soil to standing water

Deschampsia cespitosa - 1-3ft., part shade, moist to wet soil

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Chrysopsis mariana

Lobelia cardinalis

Monarda didyma

Osmunda cinnamomea

Gaylussacia baccata

Hibiscus moscheutos

Rhododendron maximum

Rosa palustris

Betula populifolia

Chamaecyparis thyoides

Ilex opaca

Quercus macrocarpa

Andropogon glomeratus

Calamagrostis canadensis

Carex stipata

Deschampsia cespitosa






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