wild cottage garden in low-lying back yard?

Asked September 1, 2016, 7:19 PM EDT

My new house's back yard backs up to the town swamp--nearly half an acre, mostly grass, large pine and silver maple surround it, only a bit of it prefers to be mallow plants. Is it possible to convert much of the lawn to a cottage garden with no-fuss plants that grow well in Michigan not far from wetlands? Or will I have a mess on my hands?

Livingston County Michigan sustainable gardening and landscaping gardening horticulture

7 Responses

It appears in the photo that there is a slope from the back of your house down to the swamp; is that correct? Is your soil continuously moist, or does it dry out? Have you had this soil tested to find out what nutrients are present as well as the organic matter? You may order a soil test kit from MSU at http://shop.msu.edu/product_p/bulletin-e3154.htm

That will help you select plants that will be well-matched to the conditions that you have. A cottage garden, although it has an informal appearance, is generally carefully planned and planted and will require ongoing maintenance. In a naturalistic setting like yours, an informal design will blend well with your surroundings.

Once you have received your soil test report, we will be happy to help you identify appropriate plant choices.

Thank you for contacting Ask an Expert.

Perennial flower garden for partial-shade back yard, organic soil, neutral pH, variety of sizes.

Your soil pH is not neutral; it is slightly acidic. 7.0 is neutral. You did not include the part about how much phosphorus and potassium you need. I am guessing that there is also a small nitrogen component as well. I can't guess by a graph. The words are below it.

You use two different words to describe what you have in mind: wild as in native plants and cottage garden which could be anything. Is this either or? What is your intention? Also, there is not going to be a carefree, no maintenance flower garden unless it is plastic.

Whatever plants you decide upon, you need plants that will do well in partial shade and damp conditions. Your organic soil indicates that this was probably a wetland or possibly the bottom of a lake long ago. The soil is slightly acidic and should work well for most plants. But the amount of light and drainage is critical to making sure plants will do well. Consider the height of your choices. Also mulching around plants to prevent unwanted weed growth.

Plants like Hostas, Astilbe, Ligularia, Thalictrum, Cimicifuga, Rodgersia, Polygonum and many others could fit if you are just looking at plants and not necessarily natives.


Thanks for your response and suggestions. I'm sorry; I thought with my soil-test results # you could see the rest of the results. I've attached the personalized recommendation parts in case you see any red flags or anything out of the ordinary.

It appears my entire body of text in response to Ms. Whitlock is missing! I'm sorry it came to you so vague.

I told her about my drainage tests: way back nearer the trees and swamp, of course, the hole I dug took all day (and night) to drain, whereas the holes I filled with water in the middle part of the lawn (where I want the perennial garden) drained--alarmingly--within an hour.

I was more concerned with drainage on this lot, and my drainage tests surprised me, but I've read that adding/keeping bulkier organic matter would slow down the drainage if it turns out I need to.

I certainly never wanted a maintenance-free garden. But I am a beginner and have heard, for example, that phlox--though I may like how the plant looks--is a more difficult plant to care for than others. Instead of "no-fuss" better to say: among plants that will grow in my lowland part-shade yard, I wanted advice on the more difficult-to-maintain plants to avoid.

So I was hoping for advice on plants that are both readily available in Michigan market and will grow in my partly-shaded yard with this soil type, and are not among the most notoriously difficult plants to maintain--mainly perennial flowers, but also foliage for contrast and ground covers as well. (Already I have areas of mallow near the pine trees in back.) I like my mother's myrtle. . ?

One concern: deer do regularly march through the back yard now, as well as skunk and raccoons--best perhaps not to provide them an outright feast of everything I choose to plant.

Thank you!

Your soil test indicates per 1000 sq. ft.:

N (nitrogen)- 3-4 lb.

P (phosphorus)- 0

K (potassium)- 2.5

These are "actual" amounts meaning that they are non-existing products that are 100 % pure. Fertilizers are always percentages, like 46-0-0 os 46 % nitrogen, no phosphorus and no potassium.

So because of your soil pH, you could use per 1000 square feet:

N- 46-0-0... 7 to 9 lb. for the season, divided into applications of not more than 2 lb. each. You can use less. Do not get on foliage or it burns leaves.

P- None needed.

K- 0-0-60... 4 lb. applied once a year in the spring.

You do not need to adjust the soil pH and you do not need to add any organic matter to the soil. A soil pH of 6.5 is good for most perennials. An organic matter content of 5% or slightly above is good. You have enough organic matter until at least the next millennium.

You will need to do some research on what deer will not feed on, handles partial shade and damp to wet conditions. Look at lists of rain garden plants or lakescaping plants that handle partial shade and are not critter candy. That definitely lets hostas OUT.

Here are a few plants that may fit but there are many more. Most are not going to be easy to find. Look to nurseries that sell native plants. They all have catalogs online.

A few plants: Any and all ferns, especially ostrich, lady and cinnamon fern, Joe-pye weed, any allium, like prairie wild onion... part of the onion family, giant blue hyssop, Canada anemone or other anemone, spreading dogbane, columbine, Canadian ginger, large-leafed aster, Boltonia, purple coneflower, wild geranium, sawtooth and Maximillian sunflowers, several kinds of Liatris and boneset.

Myrtle or Vinca minor is usually deer-proof.

These are only a few plants. This is a specialized situation so it is going to require more work and planning.

The goal will be to chose the location carefully after reading about what each plant needs. Put in several plants and if the conditions are right, they will multiply. If you chose wrong, the die.

I hope this helps.

This helps very much! Thank you. I wanted to prepare the garden area for spring; now I have the winter to look at my books and online at the plants you mentioned and do the research.

The neighbor's gardener was afraid I couldn't put in any kind of garden at all, but he also didn't realize the lawn area drained as well as it did.

Have a wonderful day.

G Garlock


Go for it!!! The winter is a great time to plan.