Our Backyard Bog Garden
By Jennifer Eisenbraun
Since I can remember, I’ve always loved plants. I often point out plants to my husband as we hike through the woods, as he politely nods and smiles at my excitement. I almost gave up on the idea that my love for gardening would be a shared passion between us until we visited a beautiful bog garden at the Botanical Gardens in North Carolina. There was a raised bed with seating to get a nice eye-level view of the native pitcher plants. My husband was so wowed by them that it sparked the idea to grow our own. At the time we lived in Chicago and we knew that we’d have to grow them in a pot to bring out of the frigid winters, but our attempts to over-winter the plants never seemed to work.
Sarracenia leucophylla hood
Now that we live in Marietta, much to our delight, we’ve had a great time creating a backyard bog. It’s something we do together: digging the holes, mixing the soil, shopping for new plants, weeding, tending, and enjoying the nature that comes to visit the bog. Can you find the little guy in the pitchers?
What is a bog? If you’re not familiar with bogs, here’s a little background. In nature, a bog is a low-lying wetland area filled with peat (decomposed organic material) and water. The plants that survive in this environment have specialized in thriving in poor soil, low in phosphorus and nitrogen. In order to get these nutrients, they have gotten creative. The most unusual of these plants, our favorites, are the carnivorous plants. Carnivorous plants “eat bugs” in order to get their nutrients.
Our largest bog patches are made up of pitcher plants (Sarracenia). They can reach 1-2 feet high and have showy flowers in the summertime. The leaves are vase shaped with downward facing hairs lining the insides in order to trap the insects that crawl down, lured by the sweet nectar. The insects are then dissolved by digestive juices, leaving the skeletal remains to collect in the bottom of the leaf. We have several varieties that have white tips, red tips, and green colored hoods. The flowers shoot up on very tall stalks, encouraging pollination versus catching a meal. It’s amazing the number of insects that can be consumed in just one leaf. Take a look at the photo of the dissected leaf from our garden. It is completely full of moth carcasses. They attract a lot of other flying insects, including carpenter bees which I’ve rescued when I heard loud buzzing noises coming from inside of a plant. I plucked them out with a twig, one by one. A bit stunned at first, but then realizing their freedom, they flew away. Have to protect the pollinators, right? I’ve even seen wrens pecking at the leaves boring holes in the sides in order to steal the insects. I consider that cheating.
Sarracenia hybrid and Green Anole
We also have a collection of Venus fly traps. Everyone has probably seen a fly trap and wanted to poke at it to watch it shut. What I didn’t know was that there are very specific requirements in order for the trap to close. There are three or more trigger hairs on each side of the leaves. If something were to touch one or more of these hairs, or one hair more than once within 30 seconds, the trap would close. The leaf leaves a little space open near the teeth to allow very small insects to escape. It requires a lot of effort to digest an insect, so it’s best to wait for a worthy meal. After the trap is closed, the membranes create a tight seal around the victim, and the digestive juices dissolve the meal. Then about a week later the trap opens to reveal the remains. A healthy trap can feed a few times before exhausting its resources. Yes, we feed bugs to our plants. It’s especially satisfying when my husband swats and stuns a fly after it has been trying to invade our outdoor dining experience and watch the trap snap closed around it. Realistically, during the summer outdoors the Venus Fly Traps do fine all by themselves. Over the winter they die back and become dormant. In the spring they sprout new leaves and await a fresh meal.
Blooming Venus Fly Trap (foreground) and Sundew
Our third type of carnivorous plants are Sundews (Drosera). We have a couple varieties, one that has long tendril fern-like leaves and another that is mounded with tiny spoons covered in sticky pads. Sundews have tiny, sticky tentacles that lure the insects with sweet nectar which they cannot escape once they land. The tentacles move and wrap around the bug and the feasting begins. I have to say, they also make for great indoor plants on the kitchen windowsill to grab those pesky fruit flies.
Bog Garden at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens – Chapel Hill, NC
In addition to our “eaters”, we have added bog lilies, March marigolds, and cardinal flowers for variety. The cardinal flowers attract hummingbirds which we love to see visit. We’ve found many of our plants at Home Depot and Pikes Nursery where the pond plants are displayed. The best selection was purchased from the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell. The CNC has a native plant sale each spring and fall and this year’s spring sale is March 30-31, 2018. If you’re lucky, you might even meet Henning von Schmeling who bred the famous cultivar, the ‘B52’ Venus Fly Trap. Henning is a very interesting person to meet and a font of information when it comes to bog gardening.
Growing our own garden inspires us to explore the abundant Georgia Nature Preserves. There are rare mountain bogs hidden in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, a very accessible self-guided tour in Doerun, and of course the Okefenokee Swamp. The next time you’re traveling south on I-75, take a detour to see the Doerun Pitcher Plant Bog Natural Area. It is worth a visit. About an hour south of Cordele, it makes a good place to stop for gas and a comfort break. Grab some bottled water and a can of bug spray. Drive south on GA Hwy 133, pass milepost 26, take an immediate left onto the dirt road and follow until it ends at the kiosk trail map where the boardwalk awaits. Enjoy a wonderful walk through this unique landscape. It’s stunning to see so many pitchers growing in the wild. The park is dog-friendly too. Did I mention the bug spray though?
I would have never guessed a few years ago that a trip to the Botanical Gardens would result in a newfound hobby that my husband and I can both share, but I am so glad it did. To be sure, we will be heading to the CNC spring plant sale and adding to our collection. This spring we will be planning a new bog bed, digging holes, mixing soil, installing new plants (that my husband knows the names of), and really enjoying our time together.
Jennifer Eisenbraun and her husband have two dogs that they just adore. She is a lifelong gardener, health seeker, and DIYer. Chicago born and raised, Georgia is her new adventure from growing organic vegetables, hiking, shooting sporting clays, to paddling down its rivers. She loves her Georgia backyard.