Why I Love Those Plants of Ill Repute

Nandina, prized for its beautiful winter berries and rouge touched foliage, is consideered a "thug plant" by many because it tends to crop up unplanted far from the mother plant.

Nandina, prized for its beautiful winter berries and rouge touched foliage, is considered a “thug plant” by many because it tends to pop up, unplanted, far from the mother plant.  Its seeds are spread by birds.

Plants make their way into our gardens for the strangest reasons.  Impulse buys, gifts, critter planted volunteers, plants we seek, plants we inherit, plants we covet; every denizen of the garden has its own history and reputation, just like every neighbor up and down the street.

Barmboo, technically a grass, not a tree, attracts huge numbers of birds to live in the shelter it provides.

Barmboo, technically a grass, not a tree, attracts huge numbers of birds to live in the shelter it provides.  It creeps further up the hill into our garden each year, spreading by underground stems.

Some histories are long and distinguished, like the ancient oak trees which grew here long before the plats were drawn for the neighborhood.  Some histories are a little murky, like the thick stand of bamboo encroaching on the back garden from the ravine.  Some plants have a rather sad biography, like the brave little Camellia which regularly falls victim to ravenous deer, despite all of our efforts to protect it.

Others, like my English shrub roses, have an impeccable pedigree, but must learn to bravely fend for themselves in our somewhat wild forest garden.  Like the original Jamestown colonists, too many have succumbed to the local conditions.

That is why the “survivors” in our garden hold a special place in our hearts.  Those wonderful plants which grow larger and sturdier each year, perhaps even spreading out a bit to cover more ground, have earned our affection.   The wonderful hardy shrubs, perennials, and ground covers which laugh at the weather, ignore the poor soil, and boldly face off the deer, secure in their lack of tastiness; have earned their places of honor in our list of desirable plants.

Orange rose

I would happily fill the garden with roses… if they weren’t so tasty….

Now, like every other gardener, I have my own special list of favorite plants which I would plant in a half minute in a hypothetical “perfect” garden.  In fact, my list is so long, it could be fill several acres. I can fantasize about my “Woodland Gnome Botanical Garden,” but I certainly can’t plant it here.  Not on this acre of steep, critter infested land.

I’ve learned to read my nursery catalogs with a skeptical eye, letting mental images of dis-budded lilies and shorn root balls temper my lust to order every lovely plant I see.  But I’ve re-channeled that energy into developing a short list of survivors which will thrive in this particular garden.

A gift from a master gardener friend, these lovely blue heritage iris grow all around Williamsburg, passed from gardener to gardener.

A gift from a master gardener friend, these lovely blue heritage iris grow all around Williamsburg, passed from gardener to gardener.

And then I read the February 2014 edition of “Virginia Gardener,” one of my “must read” publications each month.  Two of their cover stories have set my teeth on edge, and I need to respond in my garden’s defense.

An expensive hybrid Hellebore like this one will not produce seeds for plants like itself.  The seedlings will be different from the parent.

An expensive hybrid Hellebore like this one will not produce seeds for plants like itself. The seedlings will be different from the parent.

The first article, “Oldies But Goodies,” promotes the cause, prima facie, of traditional perennial flowers such as peonies, German iris and a trio of self-seeding annuals.  Yet the implication that these traditional plants are too “coarse and rather common” for a contemporary horticulturalist’s garden permeates the piece.  One becomes intensely aware of the implied disdain for traditional and heirloom flowers the author assumes she shares with her readers.

The second piece, “Thugs in the Garden,” points the finger at several beautiful and hardy ornamentals which “have become bores, overstayed their welcome, and are taking a thuggish attitude” in the author’s garden.  Now two of his selections are vigorous vines, two are perennials, and one an herb.  And if you’ve gardened for more than a week, I know you know which herb:  mint.  His article discusses the shortcomings of Wisteria, Hellebores, Cannas, Chameleon plant, and several ornamental grasses.

Vinca minor, covering the ground beneath this Begonia, is considered a thug by many since it spreads limitlessly around the garden.

Vinca minor, covering the ground beneath this Begonia, is considered a thug by many since it spreads limitlessly around the garden.  English ivy, growing through the Vinca, falls into the same category for many gardeners.

But, is there a need for insults and name calling among friends and neighbors?  Especially lovely ones we invited over in the first place?  Better to thoroughly understand a plant’s habit and then place it, and grow it, accordingly.  Many of the plants this author warns us about are simply enthusiastic growers, in my garden, which earn them high marks from me.

Now in fairness, the author, from Texas, admits that a plant often behaves differently in the Deep South than it does in other regions.  Additionally, if he isn’t trying to garden in the midst of herds of deer and hordes of hungry voles, he might not have the fine appreciation for self-seeding, spreading, enthusiastic growers that I have developed over the last several years.

The fact remains, when I discover plants which are impervious to deer, voles, drought, poor soil, and grow well in our 7b climate, I am happy to learn to appreciate their finer qualities…  Especially those plants which offer some added value for wildlife, and are attractive in the garden.  I’m not going to quibble over whether they are the latest cultivar, or sport the biggest flowers, or complain when they offer up divisions and seedlings for my gardening pleasure!

Spiderflower, or Cleome, is beautiful in the garden and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Spiderflower, or Cleome, is beautiful in the garden and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.  An annual, it reseeds itself.  Echinacea, a perennial, also crops up in unexpected spots each spring.  Both can take over a bed if care isn’t taken with volunteer seedlings each spring.

Now, I have to admit, that the friend who gave us our first Hellebore plants is more than generous with her seedlings.  In fact, the day we dug mine, we were removing them from around her tea roses where they were taking over the bed…  Because they naturalize, and because a single plant will grow into a large clump, they can take over a yard in just a few years.

Mahonia in our garden, transplanted as a seedling three years ago.

Mahonia in our garden, transplanted as a seedling three years ago.   Birds carry the seeds, which sprout easily.  This plant also forms clumps over time.

I was thrilled with the dozens of plants she sent home with me, and I was still thrilled last year as I transplanted my own tiny seedlings from the perimeter of a clump to other spots around the yard.  In fact, I have several other spots mapped out in my mind to plant more this year.  They make an excellent ground cover and produce flowers worthy of cutting for several months each spring.  They love dry shade, and every bit of the plant is poisonous!  A mixed bed of Narcissus and Hellebore is a fantasy come true to stop a family of voles in its tracks.

A couple of horticulturalist friends led me on a tour of their garden early last spring to admire their many beds of Hellebores.   Living just a few blocks away, we face the same gardening challenges.  I gained a lot of insight into the flora of our neighborhood from observing their well-established and beautifully tended garden.

American Holly

American Holly and White Pine fall into the “thug” category for many gardeners.

I suppose its true in the garden, as it is in life:  One man’s thug is another man’s dearest friend.  It is all in how you look at the situation.  And, it depends on how you arrange your plants, and what you expect from your garden.

If you appreciate the beauty of broad sweeps of the same plant, then self-seeding is welcome.

I treasure each little holly seedling which sprouts up in the woods, protect it, and hope to see it reach maturity.  Thick stands of American holly and dogwood growing beneath pines, oaks, poplars, and other tall trees are common in this area.   A mixed forest of trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcover works in that area of my garden.

Our patch of Hellebores in late November.  These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and floom for several months in late winter and early spring.

Our patch of Hellebores in late November. These perennials look good in every season, thrive in dry shade, and bloom for several months in late winter and early spring.

Seedlings which sprout in the wrong place, or in too much abundance, can simply be dug up and moved, given away, or composted.  Vigorous vines can be cut back and shrubs pruned. Eventually one develops “associations” of plants which can coexist in a space harmoniously, taking turns stealing the spot light seasonally.

As I look around my forest garden, I realize that the roll of plants some consider “thugs”, or passe’ find a welcoming home here.  I happily accepted a bag of Canna tubers this fall from another friend thinning hers.  A master gardener friend gave me some of her local German iris rhizomes, and my folks sent home dozens of Mahonia seedlings.

We inherited a healthy crop of Vinca Minor growing in many areas of the garden.  It covers itself with little periwinkle and white blossoms in spring, and covers the ground with glossy evergreen leaves year round.  Our stand of heritage peonies break into bloom each May, welcoming spring with their huge, exuberant blossoms.  Daffodils have naturalized in many areas of the garden, and I plant a few more each autumn.

Perhaps the challenge ahead is to cultivate a group of friends willing to accept divisions from me, of these beautiful and useful plants, once our  own garden is full to overflowing….

Basil with mint and Ageratum.  Plant mints where there is plenty of room for them to run.  Perennial, they spread, like bamboo, on underground stems.  These Ageratum reseed all over the garden.

Basil with mint and Ageratum. Plant mints where there is plenty of room for them to run. Perennial, they spread, like bamboo, on underground stems. These Ageratum reseed all over the garden.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Deer Resistant Plants- Zone 7B

Living With A Herd of Deer

Living with Voles and Moles

Attracting Birds to Your Garden

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “Why I Love Those Plants of Ill Repute

  1. This is very fascinating, You are an excessively professional blogger. I’ve joined your feed and sit up for in search of extra of your fantastic post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks

  2. I had never seen a mahonia till I moved in my current home 24 years ago. At first, I despised the plant because of it’s sharper-than-holly needles, but something made me loathe to remove it. So it stayed, and over the years, I have learned how to prune it so that it maintains a beautiful form, and does not crowd out the neighboring azaleas and hollies. I’ve come to appreciate its delicate yellow blooms in the middle of winter, and enjoy watching my bees enjoy the pollen and nectar they can extract from the blooms.

    Nandinas, on the other hand, I’ve always loved. Perhaps it’s because we had them in our yard when I was growing up, and my mother always enjoyed them. I love their delicate blooms in the springtime, and their beautiful red berries in the winter. One, which we moved to the back of the house when we had an addition put on over ten years ago, frequently provides a home for a family of cardinals in the spring. They build their nest where we can easily see it from the sunroom windows that the nandina stands behind. What a beautiful springtime site!

    The plants may be thugs, but they are certainly welcome in our yard. (The English ivy on the other hand . . .)

    Thanks for a great post on the struggle between wanting what one sees in the catalog vs. learning to love the beauty that God has already designed for our yards.

    Ed

    • Thank you so much, Ed, and thank you for speaking out in support of these two wonderful shrubs! I see we share the same experience of having to live with some of these plants to come to appreciate them. So glad you learned to work with the Mahonia so it can stay. I fell in love with Mahonia at Maymont Park in Richmond, where it lined a huge, formal staircase built down a hillside. There were beds of Mahonia growing on both sides of the wide stairs. An beautiful use of the shrub. I always wanted to play with the purple berries, and of course was never allowed 😉 What smart cardinals to choose the Nandina as a nesting site! Good of them to nest near the windows. Thank you for taking time on Forest Garden today. Best wishes, WG

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