In the Garden:
New England
June, 2012
Regional Report

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Ajuga looks innocently pretty in bloom, but it really has plans to take over the world!

Dangerous Beauties

According to Charles Dickens, "Regrets are the natural property of gray hairs." Well, I have lots of those telltale strands, so I guess it's no surprise that I have some garden regrets as well. What I've lived to regret is planting those deceptive beauties with lovely flowers or foliage that seem at first like good garden citizens, but whose goal in life actually turns out to be world domination. These spreaders and seeders turned my head with their good looks. Then I turned my back and they set out to take over the globe. Herewith is my cautionary tale:

Get Thee Behind Me, Ajuga!
Tops on my list of regrets is bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). This little plant seemed like such a good choice at first. I was looking for an easy-care groundcover that would do well in shade and less than ideal soil. I chose the cultivar 'Purpurea', with attractive purplish-bronze leaves, whose spires of flowers create a breathtaking haze of blue in spring. It looked lovely with the other spring bloomers in my shade garden and all seemed well. But then it began to show its true, invasive nature. Ajuga is not content just to spread by short, creeping underground rhizomes. It also sends out long, above-ground stolons, as well as seeds. Soon I noticed that bugleweed was engulfing some of its garden neighbors; then it appeared in the lawn and in far away garden beds. Now I even see it in my neighbors' lawns! I try to pull it up where it has gone astray, but its tentacled reach is great and it is almost impossible to eradicate once it's taken hold. Even if you plant it where its bounded by impenetrable surfaces, my experience has been that it will still spread widely by seed. There are some other species of ajuga (A. genevensis and A. pyramidalis) that are reputed to have a more clump-forming growth habit and spread less aggressively. I haven't grown them, but if you decide you simply must plant ajuga, one of these species is probably a safer choice.

Mallow Mistake
Picture a traditional cottage garden and you'll have the perfect setting for this lovely flower. The 2-inch pink, hollyhock-like blossoms of rose mallow (Malva alcea 'Fastigeata'), borne on 2 to 3 foot tall plants, have an old-fashioned, informal charm. But beware! If you don't deadhead the faded flowers religiously, you'll find seedlings popping up everywhere. And when you go to snatch these unwanted offspring out of the ground, you discover that even the inch-tall babies have sent a tap root straight down to Middle Earth. They aren't going anywhere without the aid of a dandelion digger to pry them out of the ground. Much as I like their looks, I have reluctantly (and only partially successfully) banished them from my garden.

A Non-Shrinking Violet
What could be sweeter than the little Labrador violet (Viola labradorica var. purpurea), with its leaves suffused with purple and its small purple flowers in early spring? Well, it's not as sweet as it looks when it begins popping up all over the place! Spreading both by creeping rhizomes and seed, these plants are now a major headache in my garden as I constantly uproot unwanted seedlings. And like many of their too-invasive garden mates, these volunteers often leave behind just enough of a bit of rhizome when I pull them to sprout, Hydra-like, into a new plant once my back is turned. They are now officially on my "root out on sight" list, but I'm sure I'll have them forever, in spite of my efforts.

The Devil Made Me Do It!
Why else did I choose plants I knew I should avoid, but planted any way? Did I think that just because I appreciated their flowers and foliage, they'd rein in their thuggish tendencies? Wrong!

It was its large, upright clusters of fleecy white flowers in early summer that caused me to cast aside good judgment when I planted Ural false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia). Never mind that it spreads rapidly and widely by suckers; I put it in a semi-wild part of my garden where I thought a little spreading would be fine. For the first two years it was well-behaved, but I knew in my heart this wasn't its true nature. Then this spring, it put on its traveling boots and tunneled underground for six feet before springing up in the middle of a prized rhododendron. I then discovered lots of other shoots arising at distant points from the original plant; my light, sandy soil makes it easy for these underground invaders to roam at will. No polite spreading here! So it came as no real surprise that I'll have to get rid of it before it conquers all.

Then there is the lure of a bargain to cloud one's judgment. Why else would I have brought home that little pot of Lamiastrum galeobdolon 'Variegatum'? I've grown the well-behaved, clump-forming cultivar 'Herman's Pride' for many years. It's silver-splashed foliage looks wonderful all season long in a shady spot and its hooded yellow flowers add additional interest in late spring. But 'Variegatum' is a well-known garden outlaw that runs through a garden by leaps and bounds. However, sitting on the sale bench with its pretty leaves and $1.00 price tag, it looked so innocent and tempting. I brought it home, stuck it in the ground -- and now I dig it up on a regular basis!

So learn from my mistakes and think long and hard about planting anything that is described as a fast spreader or a robust self-seeder. In some situations, these traits may be just what you need. But more often than not, you'll add them to your own list of garden regrets.

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