Build a bog garden, complete with carnivorous plants

Debra Strick

Who knew eating live bugs could be such an elegant affair? No, not for humans, at least not too often. We're talking about the insect-eating plants of the bog, just a few of the highlights of "Big Bugs" now on exhibit at Garden in the Woods in Framingham.

The show celebrates insect-plant relationships, and for gardeners willing to take a few extra steps, one of the best ways to get a close-up view of these fascinating interactions is to create a backyard bog garden.

With all the talk of high gas prices and the advantages of finding fun close to home, the bug-eaters of the bog provide hours of fascinating observation, and building a bog garden is a perfect summer project.

Carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants feast on live bugs and they do it so gracefully and with such highly evolved economy. Bog environments have nutrient-poor soils, and carnivorous plants have evolved remarkable survival strategies, including a diet supplemented with nutrients resulting from the plant's dainty yet fulfilling predatory predeliction.

The leaves of pitcher plants, for example, have adapted over time to roll up into sealed tubes with attractive markings and plenty of sweet nectar that mimic flowers but that is where the similarity stops. The tubes or "pitchers" entice ants, bees, beetles, moths and tasty live tidbits to crawl in deeper and deeper. The bugs can't reverse direction because of the tube's downward facing hairs and the bugs are trapped, where they eventually decay and release their nutrients. The pitchers also drown prey in captured rainwater. Their flowers are gorgeous, like those of their distant cousins the hibiscus, although perhaps more "otherworldly" in appearance with special domes allowing entry to bug pollinators, while avoiding self-pollination.

Setting up a bog garden is easier than you might think. Here are some general guidelines:

- Site your bog garden in a sunny low area, preferably one that collects rainwater runoff.

- Dig a 25- to 50-square-foot area located at least 6 inches above the water table.

- Line the area with builder's sand and cover with a 30 to 40 mil rubber pool liner.

- Make a small ditch leading from the lowest side and that is 6 to 10 inches shallower than the deepest part of the bog to allow excess water to leave (most bog plants cannot take prolonged flooding).

- Fill the new bog area with a mixture of half builder's sand and half sphagnum moss. Water the mixture and let it settle for about a week, and then fill again with more of the wet mixture until it reaches the top.

- Plant with a selection of bog plants and cover with live moss. Pitcher plants come in a variety of colors and are easily grown in a sunny boggy MetroWest garden spot. Try Sarracenia purpurea (common pitcher plant) Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant with fabulous chartreuse/yellow flowers) and a great group of native hybrids as well.

View full bog garden directions online at or consult "New England Wild Flower Society's Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the U.S." by William Cullina, available at the museum store at Garden in the Woods, 180 Hemenway Road, Framingham, or at the Web site.

Debra Strick is marketing and public relations director and curator of visual collections at NEWFS. E-mail native plant questions to or visit