Carnivorous Plant Gardens: How To Grow A Carnivorous Garden Outside

Carnivorous Plant Gardens: How To Grow A Carnivorous Garden Outside

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By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Carnivorous plants are fascinating plants that thrive in boggy, highly acidic soil. Although most carnivore plants in the garden photosynthesize like “regular” plants, they supplement their diet by eating insects. The world of carnivorous plants includes several species, all with their own unique growing conditions and insect trapping mechanisms. Some have highly specialized needs, while others are relatively easy to grow. Here are a few general tips for creating a carnivorous plant garden, but be prepared for a certain amount of trial and error.

Carnivorous Plants in the Garden

Here are the most common species for carnivorous plant gardens:

Pitcher plants are easy to identify by a long tube, which contains liquid that traps and digests insects. This is a large group of plants that includes American pitcher plant (Sarracenia spp.) and tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes spp.), among others.

Sundews are attractive little plants that grow in various climates around the world. Although the plants appear to be innocent, they have tentacles with sticky, thick drops that look like nectar to unsuspecting insects. Once victims are trapped, wiggling to extricate themselves from the goo only makes matters worse.

Venus fly traps are fascinating carnivorous plants that capture pests by way of trigger hairs and sweet smelling nectar. A single trap turns black and dies after capturing three or fewer insects. Venus fly traps are common in carnivorous plant gardens.

Bladderworts are a large group of rootless carnivorous plant that live mostly beneath the soil or submerged in water. These aquatic plants have bladders that very efficiently and quickly trap and digest small insects.

How to Grow a Carnivorous Garden

Carnivorous plants require wet conditions and won’t survive very long in regular soil found in most gardens. Create a bog with a plastic tub, or make your own pond with an adequate liner.

Plant carnivorous plants in sphagnum moss. Look specifically for products marked “sphagnum peat moss,” which is available at most garden centers.

Never irrigate carnivorous plants with tap water, mineral water or spring water. Well water is generally okay, as long as the water hasn’t been treated with a water softener. Rainwater, melted snow, or distilled water is safest for irrigating carnivorous plant gardens. Carnivorous plants need more water in summer and less in winter.

Carnivorous plants benefit from direct sunlight for most of the day; however, a little afternoon shade can be a good thing in very hot climates.

Insects are usually available in carnivorous plant gardens. However, if insects seem to be in short supply, supplement with a very dilute solution of organic fertilizer, but only when the plants are actively growing. Never try to feed carnivorous plants meat, as the plants are unable to digest complex proteins.

Outdoor carnivorous gardens in cold climates may need protection, such as a layer of loose straw covered with burlap or landscape cloth to keep the straw in place. Be sure the covering allows free flow of rainwater.

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The Best Soil for Carnivorous Plants

There are around 600 species of Carnivorous or insectivorous plants available globally, and all of them feed on bugs or insects.

These plants have evolved at least nine times and use seven different types of trapping mechanisms. Some varieties even produce flowers.

The soil requirements for a Carnivorous plant variety vary depending on where it comes from since these are found in Asia, Australia, America, and Europe. However, regular garden soil alone is not suitable for any Carnivorous variety.

Good Water is a Factor in Successfully Raising Carnivorous Plants

They are sensitive to chemicals and minerals in the water, and hard water or water treated with chlorine generally should not be used. Rainwater is excellent, and bottled water is second best, making sure it contains no added minerals. If you must use city water or hard well water, it is best to flush out your plants from time to time to wash out excessive buildups of anything harmful. If you have chlorine in your water, at least let it sit for 24 hours so that some of the chlorine may evaporate. It is best, especially for beginners, to stick to bottled or rainwater.

Grow Carnivorous Plants in a DIY Mini-Bog

If you were asked to imagine a landscape inhabited by carnivorous plants, you might envision some primeval jungle of contorted vines and fearsome beasts. In reality, unless you live on a research station in Antarctica, chances are that some ferocious flora is growing very near you.

An expedition to see wild carnivorous plants in New York City, for example, could consist of a free ferry ride to Staten Island, where the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera intermedia), with its glistening “sticky-trap” leaves, can be seen at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. Several aquatic carnivores of the genus Utricularia also grow in the kettle ponds that dot the borough. Far from being delicate, tropical novelties, many carnivorous plants grow well in the New York City region, and they can be easily cultivated outdoors in most parts of the country in USDA Zones 5 through 10.

In the wild, most carnivorous plants grow in sunny, acidic, nutrient-poor wetlands called bogs. Home gardeners can replicate this environment in a mini-bog planter and grow a diverse array of species like sundews, pitcher plants, and butterworts. You can also include orchids and other noncarnivorous wetland plants to build a fascinating miniature habitat. There's no need to hand feed your carnivores—insects will readily come on their own. Expect to see houseflies and wasps fall prey to your flytraps and pitcher plants.

Below are instructions for constructing a mini-bog using a basic pond liner from a home-improvement store, but you can adapt the idea to other containers too—almost any plastic or metal container without drainage holes can be used to replicate boggy conditions, from a window box or flowerpot to a more idiosyncratic vessel like a salad bowl, tool box, or even an old rain boot. Plan to keep your mini-bog container outdoors in a sunny location for most of the year.


  • Carnivorous plants Select species that thrive in your climate and site conditions (see below for more details).


Step 1: Provide Drainage

Fill the bottom two inches of the pond liner with crushed lava rock for water space.

Step 2: Make the Reservoir

Place your plastic nursery pot in the center of the pond liner. You will keep this pot empty and fill the container around the pot with soil. Once the mini-bog is complete, you will fill this pot with water, which will slowly drain out into the pond liner to bottom-water your plants.

This allows you to avoid top watering, which can disrupt small plants and compact the soil. The pot also functions as a bog-garden reservoir, reducing the need to water as frequently. Simply refill the pot when the water level drops to its bottom.

Step 3: Prepare the Soil Mix

Create your growing medium by combining 50 percent sphagnum peat moss, 30 percent horticultural sand, and 20 percent long fiber sphagnum moss and saturating it with water until it has a mudlike consistency. Fill the planter (outside the plastic pot) with the soil mix.

If your mini-bog is to be viewed from all vantages, consider building the soil level higher toward the middle of the pond liner for visual appeal. Or vary the depth of the soil and then plant the lower areas with more flood-tolerant species like spoonleaf sundew and parrot pitcher plant (Sarracenia psittacina). Higher areas can be planted with less flood-tolerant species like Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

Step 4: Select and Install Plants

Your mini-bog can include a mix of carnivorous plants and other species that thrive in bogs. When choosing carnivorous plants, cold hardiness is your biggest concern. If you live in Zones 7–10, you can grow Venus flytraps, most American pitcher plants (Sarracenia species), and most temperate and warm-temperate sundews (Drosera species) and butterworts (Pinguicula species).

If you live in Zone 6, focus on plants from the Carolinas and farther north, like trumpet pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava), sweet pitcher plant (S. rubra), and purple pitcher plant (S. purpurea).

If you live in Zone 5 or colder, you are limited to very cold-tolerant plants like the northern subspecies of purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea), round-leaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), English sundew (Drosera anglica), and common butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris).

Regardless of your climate, there will be no shortage of options for beautiful bog plants to accentuate your carnivores. A succession of orchids is one great option and will add seasonal interest. Try grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus), which blooms in spring to early summer, followed by the late-summer-blooming nodding ladies' tresses cultivar 'Chadds Ford' (Spiranthes cernua var. odorata ‘Chadds Ford’).

Only purchase carnivorous plants and orchids from reputable nurseries and dealers. Poaching of wild carnivorous plants and orchids threatens the continued existence of these incredible botanical wonders. (See below.)

Once you have selected and acquired your plants, think about placement. If your mini-bog will be viewed from all sides, you may want to plant your tallest species toward the center and then terrace down to shorter plants. If it's to be viewed primarily from one side, plant your tallest species at the back and install shorter plants in the front.

Step 5: Top Dressing

Once you have installed your plants, you can top dress your mini-bog with pine needles, pine bark, quartz stone, or live sphagnum to add a sense of realism and protect your plants from the impact of heavy rain. Top dressing may also help protect your plants from marauding squirrels and birds.


Water quality is always an important concern when growing carnivorous plants. Unless you live in a city like New York, where the tap water has less than 100 parts per million dissolved solids and a pH lower than 8, you should only irrigate your mini-bog with distilled water, reverse osmosis water, or rainwater.

When watering the mini-bog, fill the reservoir pot to the top and then let the water level drop to near the bottom over a period of days, so that oxygen can periodically permeate the soil. If you live in a very rainy region and you find that the mini-bog is constantly flooded, drill some holes in the side of the container about an inch below the surface of the soil to allow drainage.


Your mini-bog must be positioned where it will receive at least five to six hours of direct, unobstructed sunlight.


For most carnivorous plants native to the United States, a winter dormancy period is required for long-term survival. If you are growing plants not winter hardy in your region, you may need to shelter your mini-bog during the winter while still allowing the plants to experience natural dormancy. At the outset of freezing temperatures, move the mini-bog to a sunny glassed-in porch or a windowed basement where it will be cool but protected. Alternatively, leave the mini-bog outside, but bury the pond liner so that its surface is at the same level as the ground, and then mulch the top with two to three inches of pine needles or straw.

Once established, your mini-bog will require minimal maintenance. Just weed and water the container, and you can expect your mini-bog to last for years. Flies and wasps, beware!


For additional information on growing carnivorous plants, Brooklyn Botanic Garden will offer the workshop Cultivating Carnivorous Plants on July 30, 2016, instructed by Will Lenihan, who wrote this article.

Will Lenihan is curator of Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden.

Growing carnivorous plants, with peter d’amato

A WOODEN WINDOW BOX lined with plastic and filled with sundews and pitcher plants will attract more attention than one full of geraniums, writes Peter D’Amato in “The Savage Garden,” the fascinating bible of carnivorous plants that’s just out in an updated 15 th- anniversary edition. Ready to try a mini-bog in a pot or the ground, or a hanging basket of tropical pitcher plants in your house–and also perhaps win a copy of the book?

Prefer the podcast?

G ROWING CARNIVOROUS PLANTS was the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public radio show and podcast, with Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores, author of “The Savage Garden” (Amazon affiliate link) as my guest. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from or via its RSS feed. The July 15, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

The backstory: About 20 years ago my longtime friend and fellow garden writer Ken Druse and I were working on a book about native plants, called “The Natural Habitat Garden,” and I joined Ken as he traveled around the country photographing natives, in nature and in gardens.

One of our wildest stops was up in Sebastopol, California, at California Carnivores, which has been open and dedicated to cultivating these dramatics plants–including various native American species–since 1989. (A highly recommended destination if you are near San Francisco.) In 1998, Peter wrote “The Savage Garden,” but a lot has changed in carnivores in 15 years since the first edition–and even more so in the 40 years D’Amato has been growing them.

So many new species have been discovered in places such as the Philippines. “We’re now at an estimated 800 to 1,000 species of carnivorous plants worldwide,” says Peter for many years the number was thought to be about 600. At the time of the first edition, for instance, there were 80 known species of Nepenthes (below N. rafflesiana) those outlandish-looking “tropical pitchers” are now counted at about 150 species.

Speaking of which: In the “houseplant section” greenhouse of my local garden center, I’ve been admiring the giant hanging baskets of Nepenthes. Can I really bring one home and make it happy in my house? Apparently yes, Peter says—noting that two Nepenthes varieties (one called ‘Miranda,’ and another that’s a hybrid of N. alata) are being propagated vegetatively in recent years, and sold widely from Paris to London to the U.S. to Hong Kong.

Nepenthes do require “rather exacting conditions,” though, he explains:

  • They do well at room temperature–and can take temperatures down into 50s and 60s and up to the 70s and 80s.
  • Like all carnivorous plants, they need sun: extremely bright or sunny window exposure, such as a sun room, or in your brightest window, for instance.
  • They need to be watered daily, but not with hard water that’s full of minerals. Use water that’s purified by reverse osmosis, or use rainwater or distilled water. (DIY countertop or faucet filters such as those that inside special water pitchers are not sufficient to lower the minerals.)
  • Avoid putting fertilizer into the potting medium of any carnivorous plants. Again, they don’t like high mineral content, but you can make a diluted solution of the fertilizer, and spray or otherwise wet down the foliage perhaps twice a month. (The fertilizer they use at California Carnivores.)
  • More on Nepenthes, at the nursery website.

Did you know? carnivorous-plant ‘aha’s’

  • All carnivorous plants are flowering plants. The “pitchers,” though highly ornamental, are not blooms but modified leaves—“forming traps to lure, drug, catch, kill and digest insects,” says Peter.
  • They adapted to get nutrition this way so they can survive in the natural habitats they hail from—such as wet grassy savannahs in the Southeast, or bogs in New England, or mountain forests of Southeast Asia. Other plants would struggle in such areas, where usually the soil is peaty or sandy, with water trickling through it and even high rainfall–water that leaches out excess minerals. “Carnivorous plants have adapted to catch all these vitamin pills with legs and wings that we call insects,” says Peter.
  • The United States has more carnivorous plant genera than anywhere else on the planet. (Particularly the Southeast, from Southern New Jersey to Northern Florida and the Gulf Coast, but there are West Coast species as well.) The Southeast used to be an amazing belt of habitat for carnivores—but many are now on the verge of extinction, says Peter. “Only 5 percent of our native carnivorous plant habitats remain in the Southeast,” he says.
  • American pitcher plants have to be about 5-8 years old from seed to reach flowering age. When they finally do so, the flowers are timed to open before the year’s new pitchers develop, because the plants don’t want to catch their pollinators in the pitchers!

Making a mini-bog

A LL CARNIVOROUS PLANTS must be container plants—unless you live in a bog, says Peter. That said, the “container” can be an actual vessel (like to old washtub above, or a whiskey barrel), or a sort of simulated mini-bog set into the ground, using a rubber or plastic liner or a pot, for instance, and filled with a proper growing medium. But these plants cannot live in garden soil.

Most plants in a simulated mini-bog are simply potted ones that sit in bowls of purified water so they’re always wet, year round, even when dormant and the water freezes.

Which kind of pot to choose? An undrained container 12 inches across or larger is fine, Peter says (or a shallow depression in the ground, about a foot deep, lined with a pond liner). If it’s smallish, it will require regular watering–even daily–so choose accordingly.

Alternatively, you can use a mini-bog container that has drainage holes, and would sit in a much larger water bowl—and that’s often much easier, Peter says. The bigger reservoir will provide moisture over a longer time than a small dish garden (above, a pitcher plant in a small dish).

If you’re growing in a pot with drainage, use sphagnum moss to cover the hole (to keep the growing medium in the pot). Mix your growing medium of 20 percent washed sand (either horticultural or play sand for sandboxes), or 20 percent Perlite, to either of which you add 80 percent sphagnum moss. Make sure the sphagnum is pure, with no fertilizer added, “which has become a big problem the last few years,” says Peter, as more potting mediums come already fertilized.

Premix your dry ingredients with a lot of water—again, not mineral-rich water!—until “it’s like soft mud,” he says.

Plants come two ways: potted, or bare root. Bare root are easier to handle in late winter, during dormancy, than during active growth, to minimize transplant shock. Potted plants are even easier and more flexible, because the medium around the roots needn’t be disturbed in the process of transplanting–and pots can even just be plunged in the medium in your larger garden container.

Many bog plants can take some winter, including freezes, but in extreme Northern zones they can be given winter shelter in a bright, cold location, such as an unheated or barely heated porch. Darkness during dormancy invites rotting keep that in mind when selecting a spot.

More on growing carnivores on Peter’s website, or for the complete how-to, “The Savage Garden” is your best companion.

How to win ‘the savage garden’

I’ VE PURCHASED TWO EXTRA COPIES of “The Savage Garden” (Amazon affiliate link) to share with you. To enter, all you have to do is comment below, answering this question:

Have you ever grown a carnivorous plant? Have you ever seen them in nature, or in a botanical garden display, perhaps?

I’ve seen them in the wild and in gardens (and at California Carnivores–a great tourist stop in Sonoma County wine country) but never grown them myself. Re-reading “The Savage Garden,” I feel inspired to to try a mini-bog, at least a dish garden-sized one–and to finally buy that crazy-looking Nepenthes hanging basket at my garden center.

Don’t worry if you’re shy or have no answer to the question–just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will. Two winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Monday, July 22. U.S. and Canada only. Winners will be notified by email. Good luck to all.

(Photos reprinted with permission from “The Savage Garden, Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants,” by Peter D’Amato Ten Speed Press, © 2013. Top photo of Drosera with beetle and photo of Sarracenia minor ‘Okee Giant’ by Jonathan Chester/Extreme Images, Inc. Nepenthes photo by Sharon Bergeron. Mini-bog in an antique tub by Jana Olson Drobinsky.)

Tips to create your own carnivorous plant bog garden

Lots of carnivorous plant enthusiasts flirt with the idea of creating a bog garden. They look great, grow and change over time and above all, they host lots of interesting and beautiful carnivorous plants. So here’s some tips to help you create a beautiful and unique garden that will make people jealous!

If you’ve ever taken the steps towards making a bog garden you’ll realize it’s a lot harder than digging a hole and filling it in with carnivorous plant potting mix. Why? Well because nutrients from the earth quickly infiltrate the carnivorous plant mix. When it rains nutrients are washed in. When the wind blows nutrients are deposited on top. And all the time nutrients seep up from underneath.

Lots of carnivorous plants grow in areas called ombrotrophic bogs. These areas were formed in the last ice age. Theyare completely hydrologically isolated. No nutrients seep up from below. No nutrients are washed in from the rain. You can think of an ombrotrophic bog as like a swimming pool. Your swimming pool doesn’t turn brown from run off when it rains (or at least it I hope it doesn’t), nor should a carnivorous plant bog.

Common ways of replicating an ombrotrophic bog at home include using polystyrene boxes, kids pools and fiberglass ponds dug into the ground. You can also consider creating a raised bog garden. The same materials used below ground can also look amazing above the ground too.

What ever method you choose, there are some common gotchas that continually catch people out. First make sure the bog is deep enough. Carnivorous plant bogs are full of deep peat based sandy soils. They need to be able to withstand flooding and give enough depth for roots to burrow deep into the bog. A bog should ideally be at least 50-60cm deep. But really, the deeper the better.

The second gotcha is where to place the bog. Lots of people assume building bogs in lower ground is best. Carnivorous plant bogs build with this logic may very well have a fatal design flaw. It increases the chance of nutrient pollution and inundation with garden soil. Higher ground or at very least flat ground is best in our case. A fun fact, pocasin is the term used by Eastern Algonquian indigenous people to describe the type of bog we are building. In English, the term roughly translates to swamp-on-a-hill.

The last common mistake is not leaving enough of a rise between the earth and the bog. Make sure your normal garden soil can’t just wash into your bog. Nothing will kill your carnivorous plants quicker than normal garden soil.

Plant your bog sparingly. Your bog plants will multiply and expand over time. An over planted bog starts to look tired really quickly. In time it will become necessary to transplant, divide and thin plants from your bog too.

When choosing locations for your plants in the bog choose where the front of the bog is going to be. Plant your plants from back to front with taller plants being planted at the back. It’s no good having the most amazing patch of Dionaea if they’re completely obscured and surrounded by Sarracenia and can’t be seen.Taking plant height into consideration also helps make sure all of your plants get access to the light they need.

When it comes to watering your bog, the same rules as any carnivorous plant apply. Use the right water and keep water which is not safe well away. In summer you should artificially flood your bog to imitate natural habitat and weather conditions. This will create a hot and humid environment you plants will thrive in

If you’ve created a bog garden, let us know how you decided to do it or share some tips with everyone.

Frequently Asked Questions on the best soil choice for carnivorous plants

Can I use tap water for Carnivorous plant soil?

Tap water is not suitable for these plants because it has additives like fluorides and chlorine. These additives can burn out or over-fertilize the plants. You should opt for distilled or rainwater to maintain good soil health.

Is orchid bark a good choice for soil mixes used for Carnivorous plants?

Orchid bark is a common component of Carnivorous plant soils. It serves the purpose of improving the structure and enhancing aeration in soil mixes. Perlite is a better choice because this woody material might hold extra moisture, which can be harmful.

Is regular potting soil suitable for Carnivorous plants?

Regular potting soil is unacceptable for growing any variety of Carnivorous plants because it has fertilizer and nutrients. You should either buy a mix designed specifically for Carnivorous plants or prepare your own potting soil.

Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.

Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.

Watch the video: Sarracenia bog garden


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