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Turn A Drainage Ditch Into A Dandy Display
by Patrice Peltier - posted 03/05/14


Once a weedy mess, this drainage easement now includes a rock and boulder lined ditch flanked by shade-tolerant plants, as well as a stone path for strolling. 1

Leave it to a gardener to turn an eyesore into an amenity. That’s exactly what Judy Schmidt did with the overgrown, weed-infested drainage easement that runs through her backyard.

Forty feet wide and 140 feet long, the easement is a substantial part of her -acre property, and it was filled with invasives, such as buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) box elder (Acer negundo) and grapevine (Vitis spp.).

“It was a jungle back there,” Schmidt says. And she was afraid her husband would get killed mowing a very steep slope. People pay good money to have a water feature like she had running through the backyard. She wondered, “Why can’t I do something with that?” Regulatory issues, erosion and water quality concerns will likely be challenges when converting a ditch into a garden, no matter where you live in the Midwest. For anyone contemplating such a project, Schmidt passes along these lessons learned.

Get permission


In winter, it’s easier to see the how Judy Schmidt used rocks and boulders to line the ditch and help control erosion. 2

Even though it’s on your property, you don’t necessarily have authority over drainage easements and many other bodies of water. In many states, they are regulated — often by both state and local authorities.

“I had heard horror stories about the DNR (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) making people undo projects if they didn’t have permission,” Schmidt says, so she went to the DNR first.

A representative visited her yard and discussed the list of do’s and don’ts. The don’ts included building a bridge. Armed with a letter from the DNR confirming that the easement did not include a navigable waterway (in Wisconsin, if a boat can float in the waterway for even one day a year, it is considered navigable), Schmidt met with officials in the City of Franklin, Wis.

Initially, city officials told Schmidt she couldn’t even remove fallen trees from the easement. However once her project had the DNR’s approval, local officials gave her the go-ahead, as well.

Work with the right people

Schmidt met with six landscape contractors before finding one who shared her vision. “It was so ugly, everyone wanted to plant on the near side to block the view,” she recalls.

Eventually, she found a contractor to remove the invasive plants and bring 30 tons of river rocks and boulders from central Wisconsin. Carefully placed to look as if nature had put them there, the boulders help slow the water and prevent erosion.

The contractor added a stone path, three clumps of river birches (Betula nigra) and shrubs, including ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea (H. arborescens), vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea). Schmidt, an active member of University of Wisconsin Extension Southeast Wisconsin Master Gardener Volunteers and the Daylily Society of Southeast Wisconsin, did the rest.

Judy Schmidt planted the top of the bank with Hosta, Heuchera, Astilbe and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). She tucked daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) into sunnier spots and added annuals for pops of season-long color. Her husband, Earl Feltyberger, is in charge of the lawn which, she says, “brings all sorts of nice things out in my garden.” 1

Put the right plants to work

On the far side of the easement, Schmidt planted shade-tolerant yews to create a green fence, which fades into the landscape in summer and provides interest all winter.

Along the slope, she planted several hosta, whose dense root system would help hold the soil, while their many foliage colors and patterns would brighten the shade. She also made liberal use of soil-holding ground covers like purple-leaf wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei 'Coloratus’), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and Lamium to provide color and out-compete weeds.

Today, what was once an eyesore is now a shady haven, where a stone path meanders through annuals, perennials and artwork. The sprawling garden attracts wildlife, admirers and small children, says Schmidt, a retired high school physics teacher, with good humor. “It’s a magnet.”


Judy Schmidt often over winters her coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) inside to get a head start on color for the growing season. In the background, mums (Chrysanthemum spp.) bud in preparation for late-season color. ” 1

Tropicanna® canna lilies (Canna ‘Phaison’) offer striking contrasts in foliage color and texture with a variegated Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). This combination gives the garden a tropical feel. 1

Whimsical touches, such as this fairy, add a sense of discovery to the garden. Judy Schmidt likes pairing heucheras (Heuchera spp.) for contrasting foliage color. Here, she combines ‘Peach Flambe’ (in front of fairy) and ‘Caramel’. 1

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) provides a nice backdrop for vertical accents of variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriforum ‘Variegatum’) and blue flag (Iris virginica) and yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) iris. Judy Schmidt planted the blue and yellow flag irises on the bank and closer to the water because these perennials don’t mind getting their feet wet. 1

PHOTO CREDITS

1. Photo courtesy of Patti Peltier.
2. Photo courtesy of Judy Schmidt.

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013.

 


Patrice Peltier is a freelance writer based in Colgate, Wis.