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Saturday - June 09, 2012

From: Philadelphia, PA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Rain Gardens
Title: Plants for a ditch in PA
Answered by: Anne Bossart


I have a property in the suburbs about 20 miles south of Philadelphia, PA. There is a small creek running across the property. The "ditch" holding the creek is about 5 feet across, but the creek itself isn't more than 6 inches across most of the time (although the ditch fills with water for a short time after a downpour). The problem is that this area is difficult to mow safely (I'm no longer a spring chicken myself). The weeds grow high and it looks awful. Can you please recommend a plant that could "out-compete" the weeds in this environment? I used the Recommended Plant database, and found Wintergreen - but is this tough enough to out-compete weeds after it gets established? Mowing the ravine is bad enough, but manually weeding it would be a nightmare! Thank you!


Seeing as weeds thrive in your ditch, there are many native plants you can replace them with that will also thrive, but will be attractive and provide habitat for many species of birds and butterflies (we won't mention deer, because this Green Guru has lived in Philadelphia and can imagine how you feel about THEM!).

Nature has provided you with a garden feature that many people go to much effort to create on their properties.  It is not a ditch it is a bioswale or rain garden!  These features are becoming increasingly popular as a way to manage storm water runoff, to decrease pollution and return water to the water table instead of the river.  So there is plenty of information about them (with recommended plants that can tolerate the extreme conditions of flood and drought).

If you visit our Landscape for Life website and read the section about water you will see that this is your situation.  You will also find this publication by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden very helpful, as it lists recommended plants for rain garden by region.  I also highly recommend you visit the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College to see the bioswale they created a number of years ago.

If you return to our Native Plant Database and use the Combination Search feature instead of Recommended Species, you will have much more choice.  The volunteers and staff at the Wildflower Center who maintain the database depend on partners in different regions to help with the recommended species lists according to what is easy to access in nurseries.  I know from experience, that you will be able to source pretty much any plant on that list!

Cross-referencing between the Brooklyn Botanic Garden plant list and our database will help you determine if their recommended plants will do well in your situation.  The biggest unknown is whether you have sunny or shady conditions.  I suspect you have shade as Gaultheria procumbens (Checkerberry) or Wintergreen is a woodland plant native to your area.  Your suspicions are right, it will not outcompete the weeds.

Here are a few from their list that will do well in shade or part shade:

Chelone glabra (White turtlehead)

Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal flower)

Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon fern)

Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf witchalder)

Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis (Common elderberry)





From the Image Gallery

Eastern teaberry
Gaultheria procumbens

White turtlehead
Chelone glabra

Cardinal flower
Lobelia cardinalis

Cinnamon fern
Osmunda cinnamomea

Dwarf witchalder
Fothergilla gardenii

Common elderberry
Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis

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