Gardening 101

Thugs in the Garden

Sooner or later, most gardeners arrive at the conclusion that gardens are unnatural creations—otherwise, why would we have to expend so much energy on weeding? My garden wants to be a tulip poplar forest with an understory of Chinese redbuds, and every year I rid my garden of this opportunity through prodigious weeding.

We are diligent about not growing plants on invasive species lists. However, there are many plants that can create havoc in the gardens, plants that we have to decide whether should live or die. All this is personal preference. You might love English ivy (Hedera helix), whereas I might find it to be an intolerable nuisance in my garden.

Currently I am wrestling with the future of two plants in my garden. Years ago, in the midst of a fetish for tropical plants—no leaves could be too big—I managed to pick up a ‘Steroidal Giant’ Rice-paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer). For two years it just sat in the garden and every winter I cut it back to the ground. One year, inertia settled in, and instead of cutting back the nine-foot stalk, I left it untouched. Much to my amazement the following year it became a 20-foot high plant, soaring over a bed of hellebores, and it sent up a friend.

I nurtured the two plants, relishing my success (they love me!), until they began to send out dozens of companions via rhizome activity. The total clump now consists of seven adults—and a myriad of babies. It is not unusual to remove 25 babies—these aren’t seedlings—springing up in the grass and even in the middle of hostas and rose canes.

Why do I keep this plant in the garden? Certainly it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have it but—and this is a big but—it provides a dramatic, hit-you-in-the-face tour de force that is hard to replicate. I love the huge, castor bean-type leaves, which they shed in the late fall.

I have, however, just about given up on my hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus). Fifteen years ago this plant was all the rage—and correspondingly expensive. Appearing in February and March, the flowers delight one and all. But then the seedlings appear. In my garden, every flower is swollen in pregnancy. Every seed explodes into another plant and the gardener soon has a groundcover of hellebores.

Unlike varieties such as Helleborus feotidus, this hellebore is deep rooted. The only thing charitable I can say about this plant is that the seeds are so heavy they do not scatter throughout the garden but simply nestle close to the mother plant.

Every gardener encounters an over-zealous plant and has to make a decision as to its future. Two determining factors are instrumental in making my decision: do I enjoy the plant and are the seedlings easy to remove? If the seedlings are deep rooted, making them difficult to pull out, the plant will probably end up in the compost pile. If I can keep up with the babies that plant will probably stay put. Therefore ‘Steroidal Giant’ remains but I am busy ridding my garden of most of my hellebores. It all ends up with this observation: one is worth the trouble while the other one isn’t.

A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.

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