Baby plants have a particular charm for me. I spent a happy half hour this afternoon browsing the display of tiny ‘terrarium’ plants in 1” pots at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond. and came home with more than a half dozen tiny starts of Begonias and ferns. What fun! I have a couple of future projects taking shape in imagination, and I gathered some of the plants and staging I will need for them today.
The charm of baby plants is their mystery and their promise. What will it look like as it grows? How beautiful will it be as it blooms? How will it fit into my garden?
I have purchased countless baby plants over the years that ‘seemed like a great idea at the time.’ And then there were gifts of little divisions that came from friends in grocery bags and old nursery pots. Gifts of love and kindness, all. Especially when our upper garden was largely an empty, mulch carpeted blank slate, gardening friends expressed their compassion and well-wishes with gifts from their own gardens. Plus, they know I’m a sucker for a new plant, right?
The promise inherent in most of these sweet little starts is that they will be happy in our garden, will feel comfortably at home, and will grow.
Here lies the irony experienced gardeners know in their bones: some cute little baby plants grow up to become out of control real estate tycoons. Sound like a familiar story?
I was enchanted by the idea of growing a ‘chocolate vine,’ Akebia quinata. Beautiful dusky pink chocolate scented flowers cover the vine in early spring, emerging just before the five lobed leaves emerge from the vine’s woody stem. Supposedly, edible fruits follow by late summer. I even bought a new trellis to showcase the vine.
First of all, I’ve never gotten a single fruit. I probably needed a second vine for cross pollination. And am I ever glad that I only ordered one of these beautiful monsters! This Asian vine twines- vigorously, around anything. And then, that slender green tendril grows thick and woody, choking and squeezing whatever is in its grasp.
I didn’t understand, from the beautifully crafted description of this exotic plant, that the 40’ size would easily be achieved in the first season, and it would grow exponentially from there. When I should have been ruthlessly pruning early on, I was snapping photos and buying new plants.
Did I mention that this vine roots whenever and wherever it touches fresh soil? Let’s just say that I’ve spent many, many hours recently cutting the vine out of shrubs and trees it has been strangling, yanking up long runners where it crisscrosses the yard now, and attacking its newest leaves with the weed eater. This vine is so strong, it has even pulled over a mature Oregon grape holly shrub just by twining through its branches.
I will never eliminate the Akebia (which means ‘twining,’ by the way), but it is deer resistant, drought tolerant, grows in heavy shade or bright sun, can live in a wet spot, and makes a beautiful display when it blooms. If it had its way, I would grow only a single plant- all the rest of the plants in the garden would be smothered under its luxurious growth.
Solidago produces a zillion seeds every autumn, they quickly go airborne, and just for good measure, every root roams into new territory and sends up new shoots. If you want to quickly fill a huge field or new garden with golden, autumn blooming wildlife friendly plants, buy a Solidago or two. This native plant gets high marks from my friends in the native plant society. It supports many, many pollinators. It is drought tolerant, loves full sun, has no significant pests or diseases, and is as hardy as they come.
I don’t even remember buying mine, or accepting them from a friend. Were they planted by someone one night while I was sleeping? Or are they all from windblown seeds that took root? A beautiful plant in a wild space, Solidago, Goldenrod, is beautiful in bloom, but weedy for the five or six months of growth before it blooms. Last spring, I attacked the entire stand with the weed eater once they were about a foot high. They just got bushier and rapidly made up for and exceeded the lost stems. I yanked stems, cut them back, and generally discouraged them so well that the garden was ablaze in a thick stand of Goldenrod flowers by early September. And every bee, wasp, and butterfly in our end of the county paid us a visit.
So, after an early half- hearted attempt the cut them back in March, I began yanking these thugs out after a rain, pulling as much root as possible with each stem. I won’t tell you how many wheelbarrows I’ve already filled this spring, and I’m still pulling a pile each week. They grow so fast after a rain, that many are now shoulder high despite my best efforts at throttling them.
I did accept the beautiful white Monarda for our butterfly garden. A few roots were presented in a little plastic Food Lion Bag by a favorite retired teacher friend. What could I say? I already had the bright red Monarda didyma in the space, and hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love Monarda. Well, Monarda is a highly ornamental mint. And it runs like crazy. And it seeds itself. And it roots easily from every node if a stem falls over.
Needless to say, I have a solid block of white Monarda at the moment, filling the bed, with a few other plants gamely trying to poke through. And, it jumped the path to grow in another hedge a bit further down the bank. Early in the spring, I tried to cut it back multiple times, and pull it out around plants I actually wanted to give a fighting chance to survive. Wasted effort? It is entertaining to watch all of the pollinators enjoying the beautiful white flowers blooming this week. I am promising myself to be absolutely ruthless with it once this flush of flowers has passed.
When gardeners discuss invasive plants, normally we mean invasive ‘imported’ plants, like autumn olive, Norway maples, or burning bush, Euonymous alatus. Native plants can become just as invasive, and perhaps more so when they are perfectly suited to the climate and ecosystem.
I have spent a lot of time this spring trying to control invasive vines and perennials, yanking Virginia Creeper out of shrubs and off the house just as vigorously as I pull the goldenrod out of the perennial beds.
But I’ve planted some of these ‘thugs,’ too. I’ve planted Ajuga and Saxifraga as ground cover to protect the soil, knowing that both quickly form a solid mat of dense rosettes with runner reaching out to every side.
In the early days with this garden, I was happy to fill the empty space with whatever I could. Now, eleven years on, most of my time goes to ‘editing’ out plants that don’t play well with others.
There was a beautiful, baby maple tree seedling that I noticed in a bed last fall. Its leaves were exquisitely shaped, and it was in a spot where I could let it grow. Its new leaves had a rosy blush, and I was happy to let it develop. That is until I was leafing through a field guide to Native Virginia trees to identify an oak leaf, and noticed the outline of this exquisite maple leaf in the very back of the book. In the section labeled ‘invasive plants.’ My beautiful little seedling tree was actually a Norway Maple, an invasive maple that poses a number of problems for gardeners, including dense shade. Once a popular street tree, now it is on most every locality’s ‘don’t plant’ list.
Once upon a time, I probably would have ignored the warning and let it grow for another few years just to watch it develop. But I’m older now, and maybe a tad bit wiser. The last time I walked past it with secateurs in my pocket, I took care of business and cut it to the ground.
Every warrior knows the first rule of combat is to thoroughly know your enemy. A good gardener learns to know her enemies, too, and to cut them back confidently, or exclude them entirely, before they can create a problem that will require tremendous time and energy to resolve.
Yes, we love our plant babies and help them establish. But we also have to keep the peace, maintain the balance, and respect the integrity of our garden. Our gardens are ever-changing and constantly evolve. Sometimes preserving the harmony requires controlling plants that have grown too vigorous; creating space for something else to shine in its season.
With appreciation to The Propagator who hosts Six on Saturday each week