The Garden Comes Knocking: Using Invasive Plants
by Carol Wallace
(C) Carol Wallace
In the beginning, there was the earth. It's capacity seemed endless. Freshly tilled, rich with nutrients, full of untold promise. Begging to be filled. Demanding that my wallet be emptied.
On the next day I went to the nursery, filled with anticipation, ecstatic over the thoughts of flowers and greenery filling my new and very empty raised bed.
I began to introduce myself to the plants flowering around the nursery.The first that caught my eye was a beautiful tree peony. I checked the price. $39.95. Next I fell in love with a small, variegated Japanese maple. $49.95. My heart sank. I had what seemed to be a bottomless garden, but not a bottomless wallet. I listlessly picked up a pot of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides). Much better, at $6.95.
"That can get a bit invasive," the nursery owner advised.
Invasive? My ears perked up.
"It spreads quite rapidly." He seemed to think this was a disadvantage.
"I'll take it!" I plunked down my cash, all the while admiring the plant with its white flowers so much like the heads of a gaggle of nodding geese. "Got anything else that's invasive?"
"You don't want to do that," he advised, shaking his head. But of course I didn't believe him. I thought it a nefarious scheme to sell me a dozen slow-growers when a few rambunctious plants would do.
So I happily planted my new garden with that gooseneck loosestrife, white blooming mint, Silver King artimesia, snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). I added variegated green and white miscanthus, and white peonies, just because they get large. Things looked kind of empty, so I tossed the all-white scheme out and added showy evening primroses (Oenethera speciosa) in pink at the front of the border, with lambs ears (Stachys byzantina) as an edging.There was still dirt showing, so I tossed in a few flats of white petunias, alyssum, nicotiana and white columbine.
That was better--but the plants were small, since I had bought mostly quart-sized pots. So when a neighbor offered me some white Oriental lilies, I took them. I also accepted a white Stokes aster, planted two white roses bushes at each end of the bed, and then tucked in a variegated dogwood. I added white Liatris spicata 'Blazing Star', a couple clumps of white Physostegia virginiana, three white buddleia and some white iris.
You may think I'm kidding. If you do, it's been a long time since you planted your first garden. It's hard to believe that those little plants will grow to the sizes indicated on the plant tags. And it's hard to be patient when you want that first garden to look as lush and lovely as the ones in all the garden magazines. And by the time we had our end-of-summer garden party, I must admit the garden looked quite nice.
In the second year,there was triumph. The garden had all the lushness I'd ever envisioned, and I didn't need nearly as many flats of annuals to fill in.
In the third year, there was chaos.I went out in spring to find that about half the bed was covered with emerging growth of bright silver. The rest was covered with the reddish sprouts and blue-green whorls. Columbine and nicotiana sprouted everywhere, as did a colony of small buddleia. Of course,being a relatively new gardener I didn't recognize many of these things, and so instead of taking precautions, I just let it grow until I could tell what was what.
By midsummer, the miscanthus had obliterated the urn I had placed at the center of the bed and,leaning over, consumed everything on all four sides. Meanwhile the artimesia and lysimachia had strangled all the more frail things in their vicinity. The mint escaped the beds and started galloping toward the house, with the snow in summer in hot pursuit. I couldn't have squeezed an annual in there with a wedge. I certainly couldn't get anywhere near the strangled plants to attempt a rescue. Instead, I would sit in my garden chair each day and just stare at this unruly jungle in helpless bewilderment.
I had nightmares that soon the mint would come knocking at my back door. Perhaps it wouldn't bother knocking. It might simply march in and take root in the carpet.
I was saved by an early killing frost. Not that it killed much--but it made the garden look so dreadful that I had no qualms about stepping in with a large shovel and clearing out the chaos. Some of the nicer plants were divided and put in places where nothing else would grow. Others were ruthlessly composted. Those who were well-behaved got to stay in their nice, familiar homes.
When spring came, I could see dirt between the flowers again. But this time I was wiser. I had learned a few lessons that made me a better gardener.
1.Things grow. A sprig in a two inch pot will fill a 2' space sooner than you might believe.
2. Plants require some space to breathe and stretch out. Gardeners require space in the beds so that they can weed, deadhead and prune.
3. Plants labeled as vigorous growers look attractive til they do their thing. Pretty soon you start calling them weeds.
4. It is better to fill in with annuals than to risk strangling the perennials.
5. It is far better to risk a glimpse of naked dirt than to have your garden come knocking.
6. If you must grow a vigorous spreading plant, plant it in a container so that it won't spread.
7. If a catalog says a plant is vigorous, watch out, unless you really need to fill a big spot where nothing else will grow. Most catalogs mean "invasive" when they say "vigorous".
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.
Originally published on the Internet at Suite 101 in the "Gardening" area.