Pet dandelion with campion and lemon balm, with mullein (Verbascum chaixii) and white arabis on far side of path

Self-Inflicted Weeds

Most gardeners complain about weeds. It’s been said that there are no weeds, only plants in the wrong places. There may be something to that. Take the dandelion in the image at the top of the post. It’s been in that spot for several years. I cut out the flowers that have bloomed to keep them from producing seeds and otherwise leave it be. It’s sort of like keeping a wild animal as a pet.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Pet dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

More seriously weedy are several plants I would never have introduced to this garden now that I’ve come to know them. Once established, they spread and colonize, often invading other plants to the point both have to be dug up in order to remove the invader.

Two I’m doing battle with right now are Italian arum and periwinkle (Vinca minor, two different varieties). I planted them because they were praised and recommended by reputable garden writers.

The late Henry Mitchell was keen on the Italian arum (Arum italicum), and since he was a good writer, I was infected with his enthusiasm for the plant. Okay, my original specimen was grown from seeds I collected near a bike path, so maybe it’s an unruly type. Mitchell, I recall, mentioned a variety called “Marmoratum,” which apparently was granted an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

I would like to bestow an Invasive Plant Curse on the arum, because it has made itself a pest here. It spreads both by seeds — which are one of its most attractive features — and underground bulblets. The older the plant, the deeper it roots, making it almost impossible to remove without major digging and disruption. And its flowers are unremarkable, apart from smelling like rotting meat (a quality common to the arum family).

Arum italicum foliage
Italian arum foliage

So, Mr. Mitchell, were you aware of these problems with the arum and chose not to reveal them, or was yours better-behaved?

A plant with similar faults is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta or H. hispanica or maybe a hybrid of the two, H. × massartiana). It’s the much-praised denizen of the springtime woodland. I didn’t plant them; they were already established when I started gardening here. In bloom, it’s quite pretty, but it spreads even faster than the arum, and like it has lush, dense foliage that weighs down or shades any smaller plants nearby. Both bluebells and arum go dormant for the summer, but in spring, where these plants grow thickly, others get shaded or crowded out.

Bluebells, probably Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica
Bluebells

The bulbs of arums and bluebells are a foot or more below the soil surface, so digging them out is a challenge. In spots where they’ve wedged themselves in among other plants, it means major disturbance. The optimal times for transplanting or dividing perennials and bulbs vary, so one is bound to be doing this operation at non-optimal times for some things. Besides, in my garden it’s tough, unpleasant work, because there will inevitably be tree roots to deal with.

I’m going to experiment with cutting off the top growth of arums and bluebells in specific areas. In theory, this will eventually do them in.

Periwinkle is often recommended as a groundcover for “problem areas” such as dry shade. That’s why I planted it here. Unfortunately, I chose the unimproved basic type of Vinca minor. It has covered the ground altogether too well. It’s evergreen, so few other herbaceous plants can compete with a thick mat of it. Even the yellow and green variegated type has revved up in recent years and wound its way around irises and other perennials.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers
Variegated periwinkle covering the ground

Fortunately, periwinkle can be uprooted quite easily, working from the edge of a patch inward to the more established parts. It pays to keep an eye out for a resurgence, though. Missed bits or roots that haven’t been extracted will make a comeback.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis) is another of my self-inflicted weeds. It’s a case of too much of a good thing. In full spring bloom, it creates a blue mist of tiny flowers. What’s not to love? Its habit of abundant self-seeding, that’s what. The dense crop of seedlings that results can out-compete less aggressive plants. Individual plants are short-lived and easy to pull up, but it’s important to remove most of them as soon as bloom starts to fade, leaving only a few to develop seeds.

Forget-me-nots, Myosotis
Forget-me-nots are impossible to forget when they seed themselves abundantly.

Random self-seeding is also responsible for a surprisingly large number of unintended hellebores in some of my beds and borders. Now, I like hellebores, and they do well here, but I don’t want them in the wrong places (they are fair-sized plants with “presence”) or glommed up against other plants that need their fair share of space, nutrients, and water. Moreover, not all of the volunteers have attractive blooms; some of them are murky mixtures of purple and green. Which means I’m going to dig some of them up and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.

The difference between a garden and plants growing in a state of nature is that the latter is a winner-take-all brawl and the garden has a referee — the weary gardener, who decides what is a weed and what isn’t.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. closeup of flower
Dandelion. Too beautiful to be a weed?

63 comments

  1. Thanks Audrey for an informative helpful post. Thinking of weeds reminded me of a landscape garden company I once hired to weed my garden when I couldn’t do it myself. The manager left one of his experienced gardeners to do the job, he pulled out good plants and left the weeds. I refused to pay.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. We used to pick dandelions and give them to mom as a gift when we were kids on the farm. There weren´t many other flowers around. She would gush over them and put them in a jar with water and set them on the table. We had no idea we were giving her weeds!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It was nice that your Mom didn’t disillusion you guys by telling you they were weeds. It’s the intention behind the gift that matters. (And dandelions are quite pretty. Like most weeds, it’s their abundance that damns them.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. After introducing us to the other weeds, the cheery, bright dandelion doesn’t look so bad.

    There’s a boxwood blight going on around here. We’ve lost all four of our boxwoods.:-( I’ll need to dig them up (unfortunately, they’re kinda big, so I’ll probably have to hire someone) and figure out what to put in their place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t even mentioned bindweed yet! It’s the ultimate weed. I’m sorry to hear about your boxwoods. Not only the loss but the prospect of removing them. Hire some muscle if you can; digging out stumps and roots is a miserable business. I’ve noticed an old climbing rose here seems to be giving up the ghost, so I’ll have to think of a replacement for it.

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    1. That sounds like bindweed. There are two kinds, field bindweed (small) and hedge bindweed (big and beautiful but death to smaller plants it twines around). Also called “morning glory,” but the flowers are white, not blue like the true morning glory. Both are nearly impossible to get rid of, due to immortal roots. I have the smaller type in parts of my lawn, where they bloom embarrasingly every summer.

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        1. I can’t think what they might be. Periwinkle has purple flowers, but it’s a trailer, not a twiner. Maybe some sort of vetch? A plant called Tufted Vetch is listed as a weed in some places. At least it’s not bindweed!

          Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s related to peas and beans, so is able to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and collect it in its roots. I gather some types are grown as cover crops and ploughed under as a green fertilizer. Probably in agricultural situations. It’s an annual, so if you cut it down and don’t let it bloom and set seeds, you should be able to get rid of it.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. I was looking at the dandelions that have popped up in my garden yesterday, Audrey. I have been pulling them out as I can’t let them run riot in my garden and grass. I have never thought of bluebells as weeds and didn’t know they were so prolific although, given how they grow wild, I should have guessed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s often the difference between a robust plant that’s valued in gardens and one that’s labelled a weed–the latter are too prolific and muscle out other desirable plants instead of co-existing peacefully with them. (Sort of like some people, actually).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad I’m not alone in my fondness for dandelions. Like you I try to take the flowers before they go to seed. They make a bright display for my garden table. They’re frustratingly ingenious though, rooting down in the most inaccessible places.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, I’m always surprised by plants that grow happily in pavement cracks. No one ever tells gardeners to plant anything there. The apparent perverseness of nature! I have only one dandelion plant I treat as part of the garden. Any others I tackle with the dandelion tool, which removes them from the scene for a while, but either they regrow from what remains of the root or new ones sprout from seeds. Either way, there are always more. It would be sort of disturbing if they all disappeared.

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  6. With the social distancing and staying close to home, my yard is getting much more attention than it’s used to. I try to pluck out the proliferation of dandelions, but claiming that they were here long before me, they fight back. Bluebells are another prolific species setting up shop in my raised garden bed. I learned early on that you can’t just pull them because bulbs stay in the ground. They also have an ally – my wife. She loves them and so my thinning needs to be subtle! It’s a jungle out there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that you don’t want bluebells in a raised bed intended for veggies or fussy plants, but you would have to dig them out and remove every little bulb. I have a big pot that needs that treatment, but I’m going to try pulling out the foliage as soon as it appears and maybe starve them out. They are pretty in informal areas, though, but they do spread. I think it’s even risky to put stalks with seeds ripening in your compost pile. They’re tough enough to survive there.

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  7. I just came indoors from pulling dandelions in the front yard…to find your post about weeds! Lol!! In some ways I think “weed” is only a matter of perspective: a weed is only a plant growing where you don’t want it…. I have bluebells in my backyard that I do not consider weeds.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love your use of language and metaphor. Self-inflicted weeds, and dandelions as wild pets.

    By the way, I love dandelions. They are good food for the bees, perky and pretty. Also, edible. My grandmother cooked dandelion greens when I was a kid but I didn’t like them because they’re strong and bitter, like escarole and collards. But I’ve been seeing recipes for fried dandelion blossoms. Might be interesting.

    Absolutely memorable and quotable ending! Love this: “The difference between a garden and plants growing in a state of nature is that the latter is a winner-take-all brawl and the garden has a referee — the weary gardener, who decides what is a weed and what isn’t.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha! I put in that last sentence after visualizing myself after a weeding session, standing there with a dandelion tool in one hand, a handful of uprooted dandelions in the other and that weary look on my face. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I have a definite problem with ‘plants growing in the wrong places’ around my house. Until a few months ago there was a major issue with agapanthus, aka ‘Triffid’, which is handy for Council gardens in roundabouts, but a real nuisance domestically. The cure for my property involved a couple of skip-bins and a bobcat digger. I have a fondness for large engineering solutions for these things…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nothing like applying maximum firepower, if circumstances demand and allow. I have some sort of agapanthus, but it isn’t a nuisance. In fact, I recently moved some to what I hope is a better spot so it will bloom better. I hope it doesn’t take off and turn into a monster.

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  10. I agree, Audrey. Dandelions, with their sun shape and glorious colour, are too lovely to be a weed. But, having spent three hours, yesterday, using our ‘wonder tool’ (a hook-shaped trowel) to get them out, I’m revising their status downwards!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dandelions do love our small patch, and I used to hunt them down (But descendants would appear!).
    However during this current lockdown and we were Skyping my son and his family, our youngest Grandson appeared in front of the screen and pressed a Dandelion to it saying he knew Gran couldn’t touch it, but this was for her anyway.
    Dandelions are now a protected species….

    Liked by 2 people

  12. In the desert anything I can get to grow is appreciated. I’ve been cultivating periwinkle for three years and this year is the first with flowers. My Dad had it cover our backyard, but it was in the middle of town with Dutch Elms giving shade. My backyard is open to merciless sunlight. The periwinkle is against the wall and gets some sun, the runners without shade wither and die. I’m not sure I could get Kudzu to grow here.

    Liked by 1 person

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