Planting Challenging Landscapes: Down by the Riverside

Planting Challenging Landscapes: Down by the Riverside
  • Posted June 26, 2015

Sometimes we find ourselves with less than ideal gardening conditions in the landscapes around our homes. It would be so simple if all the soil was rich in organic matter and moist, but well-drained. We generally try to create those conditions in the areas immediately around the house, but it's often a different story in outlying parts of the yard.

Take, for example, a drainage ditch. Many neighborhoods are built with them running along the street in front of each house; other homeowners find themselves with small ravines in the backyard where the land slopes away to carry water toward the nearest creek. Anywhere that the slope of the land funnels a large volume of water to during rainstorms presents a dual set of challenges when it comes to landscaping: the area is prone to erosion, but it also alternates between flooding and drought.

Fortunately, there is a class of plants that is adapted to these conditions and can be enlisted to prevent erosion and beautify an area that goes back and forth between marshy and bone dry/rock hard. These are called riparian species — nature's solution to the challenging conditions of the riverbank. Riparian species excel at anchoring the soil and thrive in heavy wet soil. They tolerate occasional flooding, but can make it through during summer dry spells when river levels may drop drastically, leaving them high and dry.

Sedges, Reeds and Rushes

are grass-like plants that grow in moist places. They fill the soil with a mat of rhizomes (a type of root), preventing erosion, but the rhizomes also conserve moisture to keep the plants green when rainfall is scarce. Common ornamental plants in this category include Carex, Juncus, Scirpus and Cyperus.


Riparian shrubs include elderberry, red osier dogwood and chokeberry.

Each of these also happens to produce berries that birds adore, making your drainage area landscaping double as wildlife habitat.


Moisture-loving trees to consider include willows, poplars, cottonwoods, birches and alders.

None of these species will wow you with their flowers, but all come with decorative seed structures, attractive bark patterns and interesting foliage. Most importantly, they will thrive in those sometimes wet/sometimes dry locations where most other landscape plants would fail.


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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.

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Planting Challenging Landscapes: Down by the Riverside