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Keywords: Lolium, Ajuga, Vinca, Hedera helix, Festuca, Arctostaphylos, Achillea, Grass varieties, Land treatment of wastewater, Turfgrasses, Ornamental grasses, Landscaping drain fields

PAL Question:

We have a new house that we have to landscape around. The biggest problem is that we have to be careful what we plan due to the septic system. It is an evaporation system, with two huge cement tanks buried under the ground in the front of the house and plastic pipes running through the side yard. We are planting grass in a rectangle right above the biggest bunch of the plastic pipes, but what can go around it or by the cement tanks that will not grow long roots and dig into it? In looking at the planting information on the packages and in my Western Garden Book, nothing seems to mention root depth.

View Answer:

Below is an article entitled What to Plant Over the Septic System by Mary Robson (originally published in her Regional Garden Column for Washington State University Extension, December 6, 1998):

"As more and more people move into rural areas, questions about septic systems and landscaping have become quite common. This column deals with some of the basics. A new brochure from Washington Sea Grant called: Landscaping your Septic System, offers considerable detail on the subject and provided much of this material.

"First, be sure that the septic field is clearly identified, and you know where the reserve area is. Keep all construction away from these areas. Understanding the functioning of the system is vital. Get information. (Some of it is available in video form.) The drainfield will not work well if overloaded with extra surface water, so be certain that it is not in the path of downspout run off or irrigation systems.

"Sunlight and air circulation also help the drainfield perform properly. Avoid surrounding it with tall trees. (Some shade is fine, but you would not plant an oak on the edge of a drainfield.) Set up some barriers so that it is not compacted by frequent foot traffic. Occasional mowing or moving through the field to check the system is certainly fine, but you do not want the drainfield in the middle of a heavily used path.

"There are advantages to using plants over the drainfield. Plants do help provide oxygen exchange and contribute to evaporation necessary in the drainfield area. Choose plants with shallow, non-invasive roots. You do not want breakage or damage in pipes from root intrusions.

"Grasses are most commonly recommended for the septic area. Lawn can be attractive. Do not overload the system by watering it a lot. Meadow grasses or a mixture of turf grasses like perennial rye and some broadleaf flowers (such as yarrow) can also look good and require little maintenance. Several mixes sold as Eco-Turf or Fleur de Lawn have these components.
"Small, shallow-rooted ornamental grasses (for instance, Festuca ovina 'Glauca' 4-10 inches) can also be good looking. Very tall grasses like Stipa gigantea are not appropriate. Avoid over-active plants like English ivy (Hedera helix), which is becoming a menace in forested areas by moving in and stifling trees.

"Edible crops are not suggested. Vegetable gardening requires frequent cultivation, and digging in the drainfield area is inadvisable. Also, the brochure notes that: Sewage effluent is distributed through the soil in the drainfield area. Any root vegetables planted in this area may be directly exposed to septic tank effluent.

"Other possibilities are low-growing ground covers. Some, such as bugle weed (Ajuga reptans) and vinca (Vinca minor) grow vigorously and would fill in quickly. The native kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) grows well in full sun but is slow to establish. A mulch around the plants may help with weed control while the plants spread.

"The green growing layer over the septic tank helps the system to function, adds to the appearance of the landscape, and should, ideally, be set up to allow easy monitoring and maintenance. Keep landscaping simple and straightforward, remembering that the object is the good performance of the system."

To get more information on septic systems, contact your local health department. The brochure Landscaping Your Septic System (pdf) is available through the Sea Grant Program.

Here are links to publications that might also be helpful:
Mounds: A Septic System Alternative
Understanding and Caring for Your Sand Filter System
Care and Feeding of Septic Tanks

Season All Season
Date 2007-04-10
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June 24 2013 12:55:25