Campanula persicifolia

Friends or Enemies? No, Just Plants.

“Peach-Leaf Bellflower, Garden Enemy #2” is one of my most-viewed posts. It was written in a fit of pique after I stabbed a hyacinth bulb while engaged in a heavy session of digging up peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) that had spread by runnng roots. I have since relented in my harsh judgement of that plant.

Partly it’s because I’ve decided there are plants even more apt to spread and harder to control. To wit: Oregon grape, snowberry, periwinkle (both Vinca major and V. minor), achillea, bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), and certain daylilies. I’ve fought more desperate battles with these than I ever waged against the bellflower (which is rather attractive just now, in its first flush of bloom).

It’s dumb of gardeners to blame plants for being themselves, bestowing upon them unkind epithets such as “thug” or “garden enemy.” (Not that the plants give a damn). I’m the one who decided to plant peach-leaved bellflower, Oregon grape, and snowberry in my garden, thinking them good choices because they are drought-tolerant, or native species, or both. Thing is, they succeed in our local conditions precisely because of their deep-rooting, runner-producing tendencies.

A recent reading of Noel Kingsbury’s excellent book, Garden Flora, gave me a new perspective on this — grouping or classifying plants by ecological habit, as well as by habitat or anatomy.

In looking at the longevity and persistence of plants, some are called “clonal” and others “non-clonal.” The first group includes those that spread by rhizomes, roots or stolons, and others that stay in one place but increase in size. Non-clonal plants are generally short-lived, but produce lots of seeds to ensure persistence. Both types are represented in my garden. The spreaders and seeders are the ones that give me grief, and on the whole, the seeders are easier to deal with. Deadheading is a lot easier than digging up Mahonia roots, let me tell you.

Kingsbury says the non-clonal plants tend to be pioneers, moving into an area and flourishing briefly, only to be supplanted by clonal competitors, whose roots, whether running or expanding in place, allow them to dominate their environment.

Learning about the science of things is a good antidote to the human tendency to personify. Plants don’t run or produce zillions of seeds just to bug gardeners, but as a survival technique. If gardeners were aware of these habits before they introduced plants to their precious patches of earth, much physical exertion and gnashing of teeth could be avoided, or at least minimized.

It would be helpful if writers of advice for gardeners included this aspect of plant performance in their writings. I’m sure if I had read something like “this is a tough, drought-resisting native plant, but gardeners should be aware that it spreads vigorously in conditions that meet its needs,” I would have avoided some plants, and situated others more carefully.

Beguiled by fervid descriptions of a plant’s flower colour, reliability, or the fact that it’s a native adapted to local conditions, I have rushed out, bought one or more, and installed them in my small patch of land. They took hold and flourished. Fast-forward a few years to see me whine and swear at colonizing shoots metres away from the original plant, often in the middle of some pampered darling that’s trying to make up its mind as to whether life is worth living. By this time, of course, the original plant has grown large enough that removing it would be a major project of the back-breaking variety.

The gardener mutters and swears. The clonal plant clones. The planet rotates. The gardener digs, chops, mutters, and swears.

Innocents, take note!

June 11, 2016

The Hori-hori Knife — essential weapon for battling suckers.

Peach-Leaf Bellflower: Garden Enemy #2

I was out in the garden on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, doing what I expected to be routine cleanup — cutting down old perennial stalks, removing the odd overgrown specimen, etc. But I realized I had a bigger problem on my hands — peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), entrenched and spreading all over one of my sunnier and tree-root-free perennial beds. A planting of variegated irises and a specimen of Eryngium yuccifolium were threatened with oblivion as the peach-leaf pest sent out new offsets and and an ever-thickening mat of roots.

I happily included this plant in my post called Tough Plants for Dry Shade, and I still think it belongs there, but now I issue a warning:  do not plant Campanula persicifolia in places other than dry shade, especially if you garden on light, sandy soil. In hospitable, sunny spots, it becomes a rampant thug. Plant delphiniums there instead.

In a hasty attempt to get rid of the unwanted bellflowers, I went from hand-pulling (useless except for seedlings or brand-new offsets), to stabbing with a trowel, to deploying the gardener’s big gun — a digging fork. That did the trick, except that I dug up a bunch of tulip and crocus bulbs along with the bellflower mats, and, worst of all, sliced off a nice hyacinth bud that was awaiting spring under the soil surface.

That’s the really awful thing about spreading plants — they cover up other plants and, unless the gardener has a really good memory and/or really meticulous records, render them invisible. The busy gardener glances over a bed and sees nice, healthy plants of peach-leaf bellflower, totally forgetting about the irises, eryngiums and bulbs that were planted there in the first place. When the truth finally dawns and Something Must Be Done Right Now, havoc and destruction ensue.

Some may say I’m being unfair to Campanula persicifolia. Just because I was too lazy to keep an eye on things, I need not vilify the bellflower, which is an attractive and reliable plant. Maybe so, but gardeners should know about a plant’s bad habits before they introduce it into their premises, so I think this screed is justified. (And of course I’m still upset about that hyacinth).

On a related topic, following my post on Plant ID, in which I made observations about different kinds of plant labels, I actually received as a Christmas gift a couple of dozen rather nice permanent metal labels with solid plastic stakes to hold and display them. I’ve decided to use them to mark valued plants that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the rambunctious “tough plants” that I have allowed to proliferate here. The idea is that the labels will remind me to check on the well-being of the plants they represent, thus ensuring that the markers will not be of the RIP sort.

Oh yes — and what is Garden Enemy #1? In my garden, it’s those maple trees, of course. I’ve ranted about them before, and will likely do so again.