Pitcher plants allow flies inside their trumpetlike stalks, but they're never seen again. Sundews excrete dewy drops of sweet, sticky fluid that lures gnats to their doom. Venus flytraps ensnare unsuspecting spiders with their fearsome maw.
Science fiction? No. Just another day in my bog garden.
Most people assume these striking, alien plants are rare tropical exotics, but they're not. The venus flytrap is native to a very small coastal plain in the Carolinas, and sundews and pitcher plants can be found from southern Florida to as far north as Canada. Their insectivorous habits are an adaptation to the nutrient-poor soils usually found in bogs and fens. Carnivorous plants quickly die if planted in the regular potting soil most plants thrive in: The nutrients overwhelm them.
Since they're native to our part of the world, they're also quite hardy. With a bit of leaf, pine needle or straw cover in the fall, they can live outside year-round like any other hardy perennial. These plants have spent winters outside in my outdoor bog garden only to come back the next year with increased vigor and size. Some even reproduce; I continue to find tiny sprigs of venus flytrap under my pitcher plants.
You might say, "Aren't these plants best left to the experts?"
Truth is they're very easy to care for--far easier than the average aquatic garden. They need different conditions in order to thrive, but those conditions are very easy to meet: nutrient-poor soil, lots of sun and clean water--all of which can be found indoors or on decks (sunny south-facing windowsills are perfect for them).
To start, you'll need a non-draining container: plastic and glazed ceramic are excellent. Don't use cement, concrete or terra cotta--the minerals will kill the plants. Old bathtubs make especially attractive bog gardens, as will old whiskey barrels lined with plastic. If you're feeling especially ambitious, you can use aquatic pond molds to establish a permanent bog garden.
Fill the container with a one-to-one mix of peat and sterilized sand, like that used for sandboxes (don't use river sand or beach sand as salts quickly kill bog plants). Be sure to place the container where it'll get at least six to eight hours of direct summer sunlight each day. Bog plants need as much sun as desert succulents, possibly more.
Use distilled water, rainwater or water from condensation, like from an air conditioner. Even though our local water is relatively soft, it isn't a good idea to use regular tap water as your main water source--it lessens the acidity of your bog, and too many chemicals and minerals can harm bog plants.
Here's the fun part: selecting your plants. You can opt for an eclectic mix, or a stunning mass of one kind of plant.
Did I mention carnivorous plants also send up beautiful blooms?
If you'd like to see a bog garden before starting one of your own, visit the new bog garden at Bartram's Garden, where the venus flytrap was first successfully cultivated.
The conservatory at Longwood Gardens also has carnivorous plants, and Joe Keifer's bog garden at Triple Oaks Nursery in Franklinville, N.J., is spectacular. I highly recommend The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato. It's an indispensable guide to caring for carnivorous plants.
Now sit back in your garden and enjoy the buzzing music made by those little needle-nosed bastards as they die in agony inside your little green darlings.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide