Unequal battles

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Crassula multicava forms a wide clump in shaded spots

I have fought a fair few unequal battles in my time. Against schoolyard bullies when I was a shy teenager; horses that refused to budge on trail rides; cats that declined to eat normal cat food; stubborn toddlers who insisted on wearing only clothes of a particular shade of pink ... On that latter front, older, wiser mothers advised me not to waste energy on pointless battles I couldn't win and to save my strength for those that matter. I have tried to apply this same reasoning in the garden.

There are definitely some battles I will never give up on. Onion weed, oxalis and sour sob continue to pop up in my garden after 20 years, but I am determined to remove them whenever I see them. I have rarely used weedkiller on them; I usually try to get the whole thing out - not always successfully. Wandering jew will probably haunt me for the rest of my days, as it comes in under the fences from neighbouring properties, but I do remove it as best I can. I never put weeds in the compost heap - they always go into our green rubbish bins.

White Japanese windflower growing with variegated Hydrangea macrophylla

The battles I have given up are against garden plants that despite being thugs do have a beguiling charm, so it is better to go with the flow (or avoid planting them in the first place). I try to confine them to areas where their zest for life and territorial ways are an advantage in filling gaps, such as between shrubs in shady borders where not too many plants will grow well. Japanese windflowers (Anemone x hybrida) are a good example. I adore their exquisite flowers on graceful long stems in late summer and autumn, but they do spread widely and are almost impossible to get rid of once they have settled in - which funnily enough, for many rampageous plants, can often take a while! I have coralled them with a cement-edged path, and they have spread happily between large bushes of Hydrangea macrophylla in a shaded bed.

Tricyrtis hirta growing in the garden of Glenys and Stephen Rowe in Sydney

It sometimes works to pit one spreading plant against another in such a garden area, if you want some foliage or flower contrast. In the same border, I have the toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) fighting against the Japanese windflower for supremacy. For years I tried to get rid of the toad lily, which had arrived in my garden many years ago as a gift from a friend, wrapped in a piece of damp paper towel. It has attractive spotted leaves and curious, dainty freckled purple flowers in autumn - and one of the most tenacious root systems of any plant I have ever grown. Yet on the recent garden crawl run by our local garden club, I saw it making a magnificent lush groundcover along a path in a shaded area in one of the gardens we visited. I decided then and there to give up this very unequal battle and let it fight it out with the windflower.

Golden oregano growing in the kitchen garden at Heide, Melbourne

Another vigorous coloniser is oregano. Last week, I talked about the role of attractive edible plants in the garden and I forgot to mention golden oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'). I have this growing in an area with hot-coloured flowers and its gorgeous golden leaves form a wonderful groundcover below bright red dayliles, yellow Osteospermum cultivar 'Voltage' and the lime-yellow bracts of Euphorbia characias subsp. wallichii. It also looks brilliant with blue flowers. I rein it in every spring and cut it back hard: it soon recovers and forms billowing cushions of gold that delight me every time I see them.

Viola odorata, white form

Sweet violets can actually be quite invasive in their own way, determinedly self-seeding and spreading by runners in a place they find to liking. When I found a patch of my garden overrun by violets, I decided to make a feature of it, by adding white and pink cultivars to the original purple ones. The resulting patchwork of dainty blooms thrills me each winter and spring, and the leaves do make an excellent groundcover for the rest of the year.

Another spreader is the woodland iris Iris japonica, which also flowers in late winter and early spring, expanding via long runners to form wide clumps of its leafy fans and dainty clusters of simple pale blue or white flowers. Because it is so shallow rooted - and enjoys shade - it is ideal for filling empty spaces under trees, with very little maintenance required. I team it with another tough customer: Crassula multicava (London pride), for its contrasting chunky rounded foliage and sprays of tiny pink and white blooms at the same time as the Iris. It is an almost indestructible plant.

What these plants have actually taught me is that a mass of one thing is usually more successful visually than the puny, individual well-behaved specimens dotted around my garden. It really is better to buy a few of the same thing to create impact ... or maybe to use more thugs???

Reader Comments

  • By Sue T. 2566 Monday, 20 October 2014

    My worst thug is an old fashioned Alstroemeria from the days before Princess lily hybrids became fashionable. It is quite attractive but overwhelms anything in its path. It grows and spreads from what seems like millions of small tenacious tubers and seems impossible to eradicate. Sue I agree that one is a shocker. Years ago someone gave me the variegated-leaf version of it. It grows under a tree in a very dry spot and I have to say it looks quite good!! I remove the flower stems immediately after blooming as I don"t want it to self-seed as well as spread! Initially I tried to remove it but gave up after a few years. Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 Monday, 20 October 2014

    After 15yrs I continue to fight onion weed, oxalis & violet. In recent years I have started growing a much better behaved violet cultivar with very short runners which maintains a neat tight upright clump of glossy dark green leaves & rich dark indigo flowers. The one plant I wish I had never planted is the aniseed sage S guaranitica, which has beautiful blue flowers however takes over etire beds with a solid mass of hard bulbous roots just below the surface which out competes all other plants. That violet sounds a good one. I agree the ordinary Salvia guaranitica is a horror plant. I think many of us grew it when there were not many salvias around as we loved its blue flower. Now I grow S. guaranitca Large Form, which has the same amazing flower colour but none of the invasive ways of the original one. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Have some of same thugs especially what I call the N Z Christmas Bell with its very light green leaves, sometimes variagated ? Alstroemeria psittacina. Have just been culling the lovely swaying flowers of the Crassula now they are tiring and today out to pull out some of the many babes sprouting up! Cheers Maureen Thanks, Maureen. See my comment about the variegated NZ Christmas bells! Yes the Crassula does have lots of babies. I pull out handfuls every so often but I am fond of it for a dry shaded spot where little else will grow. Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Can you believe in my first garden I carefully nurtured japanese anemones believing them to be fragile and delicate!! In my present garden they are a wonderful standby for shady areas under a very large elm tree. I have just found a few plants popping up which might be toad lily ( here"s hoping) or perhaps Juno irises. There are two small clumps of this mystery plant which have shot up since I pruned back some very old hydrangeas ( probably not pruned in more than 10 yrs). Can"t wait to see .Good luck with your mystery plant! I would never want to be without my windflowers, naughty as they are. Deirdre

  • By DAVID 2068 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Hi, I"m a relative newcomer to the east coast so I found this information quite useful. I"ve long wondered what some of the weeds are that I"ve got in my Sydney garden. Wandering jew - is that the variety Commelina cyanea with blue flowers? How about Amaranth? I read that it"s quite edible like spinach? And the millions of little weeds that look like chives, with a little onion-like bulb? Sorry so many questions, but as I say I"ve long wondered. Cheers, Dave Hi Dave - wandering jew is a type of Tradescantia - a large plain green leaf with a small white flower. There is another version with smaller leaves and a blue flower but the bigger one is the most virulent. Hens enjoy eating it! Amaranthus does have an edible leaf and self-seeds horrendously but I do like it as it has an amazing presence in the summer garden (see my Plant reference under Amaranthus caudatus). I get thousands of seedlings every year and pull out all but about 10 of them. Onion weed is probably the worst weed of all - yes, it looks like thin chives and has a white flower on top. It is really hard to dig the whole bulb out as there are usually lots of baby ones around it. One way to combat it is to dip scissors into Round Up weedkiller then cut the stems with the scissors. Deirdre

  • By Sue 3265 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Oh how I relate to this topic! English Ivy is my bane, when I brought the property I had never lived with it and thought it pretty...(I came from an arid area where little grew to here is SW Vic with high rainfall and beautiful volcanic soilt hat grows anything I ask it to!)..for a while anything was good if it was green! ...until I found out English Ivy ( Ivy Hederacha) strangles everything and sends it"s little seedlings up in every pot and place in the garden....I fight on! Sounds a challenge; it can get rampageous here too but maybe not as bad as where you are. Good luck with your battle. Deirdre

  • By Clare 3123 Monday, 20 October 2014

    I can add to all the above! Cymbalaria muralis which has been with me for more than 20 years and 2 gardens. Very pretty when it grows in cracks in brick walls but can be a nuisance when it grows in the garden. Similarly, Erigeron or Seaside daisy. Another is the little viola, Johnny Jump Up, which I actually think is very attractive but I do have to cull it in spots. Oh how I wish I could grow Japanese anemone in my sandy soil in my current garden! Had no problem in my previous garden! I agree that seaside daisy can be very enthusiastic - it self-seeds in every crack but I would never want to be without it as it grew in the garden of my childhood. Ditto the little viola. I pull out hundreds of seedlings of these each year but always leave a few. I love the way the seaside daisy softens hard brickwork. Shame about the windflowers in your sandy soil. But great to have good drainage for those plants that need it! Deirdre

  • By Diane 3788 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Besides the majority of the weeds already commented on I have been fighting morning glory. If you don"t get every tiny bit of the root it reappears and spreads like wildfire, but it is virtually impossible to get all the roots without them snapping off. I find windflowers and bluebells trying to invade the paths but as there are shallow rooted azaleas either side of the paths I don"t feel happy about spraying so I went round for a few hours today and whipper snipped them all. They"ll be back! Morning Glory is one of the most tenacious. My mother fought it for 50 years! She beat it back but it was not defeated. Deirdre

  • By Janna 0 Monday, 20 October 2014

    A lovely, beautifully written article that we can all relate to! Thanks, Janna. I did not realise it was a topic many feel so passionate about! Deirdre

  • By DAVID 2068 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Crepe myrtle too - quite a struggle to kill one, it just keeps coming up. I tried neat glyphosate into holes drilled into the freshly cut stump - didn"t work. And that shrub was just a young one. I too have that problem with them. I try to pull them out at the base. It sometimes works! Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Hi Deirdre, You have just described the plants in my garden. It"s a battleground and I"m not winning.Georgina I have felt pretty overwhelmed by weeds this spring. I think it is because of all the rain in August. I am spreading a lot of cane mulch at the moment in an attempt to get on top of them. Deirdre

  • By Lynne 2479 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Ah now that strikes a chord with me Deirdre. Camphor Laurel!! Magnificent tree but boy oh boy, it has made itself much to much at home in Northern NSW. It is a yearly battle to contain the mini versions and the leaf drop drives me nuts every year. We have rid ourselves of most from our property but we are surrounded by them on other properties so it is a constant battle. Nevertheless, we take a deep breath and plant as many "local" plants as possible to crowd them out. It can be a dreadfully invasive tree. I hope you can crowd them out with the other plants you put in. Deirdre

  • By Lynsey 2100 Monday, 20 October 2014

    Gardening is a form of war. Oh, those sweet temptations that are worse than trojan horses.Indigofera is pretty tenacious. It was wonderful during the drought but as soon as the rains came it went ballistic. I"m still digging it out of the lawn five years later. Yes that one is pretty determined. Good where nothing else will grow but likes to take over. Deirdre

  • By Lynda 3971 Tuesday, 21 October 2014

    A great article Deirdre. Thank you for the ideas in it. Thanks, Lynda! Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 Wednesday, 22 October 2014

    I don"t find Erigeron or Cymbalaria too hard to control, & do appreciate their reliability; likewise the Japanese Anemones are easy to manage. Tahitian Bridal Veil (Gibasis pellucida) on the other hand, a Tradescantia relative, beautiful in a hanging basket or pot, incredibly easy to grow & impossible to kill with neglect, becomes a total thug if a small piece takes root in any shaded bed! Many years ago I stupidly planted a lovely little bulb Crocosmia crocosmiiflora in my parents garden, which proceeded to take over the entire front yard, where it remains to this day! I also planted that Crocosmia. I got rid of most of it but some bulbs still pop up! Deirdre

  • By Ruth 4034 Thursday, 23 October 2014

    Ruth 4034 Wow Deirdre, you did create a lot of conversations! Thanks for you tip for Onion Weed with the scissors dipped in Round Up. On a more positive note - I planted a climbing rose called Pinkie at my front door two years ago on large white lattice, it"s just gorgeous, I have counted up to 75 blooms on some of the "bunches". I love hearing the neighbours walking past admiring her. Can recommend this one for prolific blooming and easy care. Thank you for your Blog. Ruth Thanks, Ruth. Pinkie is a lovely rose. Yours sounds a wonderful specimen. Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 Tuesday, 06 January 2015

    Its a bit late to comment I guess, but just reading this article and the following comments enabled me to identify so many plants in my (newly acquired) garden! Or perhaps I should say weeds... I think I have them all! I notice Madeira weed wasnt mentioned though. This awful plant has no redeeming features whatsoever, and I leap on it with roundup as soon as I spy it anywhere.

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