periwinkle

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?

Remaking a Perennial Border

I suspect most naive gardeners (even those with years of experience) think that a perennial bed or border, once made, is a done deal. Plants may come and go, but taking the whole thing apart and reconstituting it is unthinkable — sort of like rebuilding a house. But of course a perennial border is a collection of living things, so it’s bound to change. Over time, the tough and hardy plants muscle out the weak and fussy. Some inevitably become dominant in the picture, while others disappear.

Consider these two views of my back garden:

Back Garden, Fall 2010

Back Garden, Fall 2010

 

Back Garden, September 2015

Back Garden, September 2015

 

The same scene, obviously, but details are different. Some plants have grown bigger or more numerous, while others have declined or disappeared. Superficially, though, one could say it still looks fine, despite the addition of dog-excluding fences in the 2015 scene. But I know it was lusher, fuller and better-maintained five years ago.

I plan to retire from my job next spring. Near the top of my list of post-retirement projects is an overhaul of the garden, yanking it out of its present state of decline. Over the years I have whined about the effect of tree roots on perennial beds and vegetable patch (now the Ex-Veg Patch). I have vacillated between accepting the inevitable (substandard beds and borders in dry, rooty shade) or doing the heroic (and expensive) — tree removal.

Now I wonder if there is a third option — rebuilding the border. I remember reading a description of how English perennial borders (the ne plus ultra of this form of gardening) were taken apart, re-dug, enriched and replanted every few years. This was (still is?) a routine procedure, intended to keep the border at a peak of perfection.

Something like that — which I admit sounds pretty heroic, if less expensive — may be the answer, especially as I’ll have more time but less cash.

So, a plan is needed. What plants to dig up and return to refreshed, de-rooted soil. What plants to dig up and discard. What plants to leave in place because they are too difficult to dig up. And I have to decide just when all this digging is to take place. The usual seasons for planting and dividing perennials are spring and fall. A rough rule is to divide spring bloomers in fall, and summer and fall bloomers in spring. But I think this operation is best done in spring, or even earlier — mid-February to mid-March, which I think of as “pre-spring” here on the fortunate west coast. With some care I’ll be able to extract the plants to be kept with enough soil around the roots that they won’t even know what’s happened.

As for the final configuration of the beds, I’m considering fewer large and medium plants and more low groundcovers, such as variegated periwinkles, which are not as pushy and vigorous as the plain types. I’d like more hostas, but I’ve come to realize they really don’t do well in rooty soil. The only way I can grow them well is in pots. Therefore, a combination of large ferns (Dryopteris species) snuggled up to potted hostas (the ferns concealing the pots), with some white foxgloves in the background, and the stalwart hellebores, of course… Too many large plants already? Well, I’ll work it out.

The best gardens, of course, are those in the gardener’s imagination.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring that this small area near the pond, right now, looks a lot like this picture, also taken in 2010.

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010