I have fought a fair few unequal battles in my time. Against schoolyard bullies when I was a shy teenager; horses that refused to budge on trail rides; cats that declined to eat normal cat food; stubborn toddlers who insisted on wearing only clothes of a particular shade of pink ... On that latter front, older, wiser mothers advised me not to waste energy on pointless battles I couldn't win and to save my strength for those that matter. I have tried to apply this same reasoning in the garden.
There are definitely some battles I will never give up on. Onion weed, oxalis and sour sob continue to pop up in my garden after 20 years, but I am determined to remove them whenever I see them. I have rarely used weedkiller on them; I usually try to get the whole thing out - not always successfully. Wandering jew will probably haunt me for the rest of my days, as it comes in under the fences from neighbouring properties, but I do remove it as best I can. I never put weeds in the compost heap - they always go into our green rubbish bins.
The battles I have given up are against garden plants that despite being thugs do have a beguiling charm, so it is better to go with the flow (or avoid planting them in the first place). I try to confine them to areas where their zest for life and territorial ways are an advantage in filling gaps, such as between shrubs in shady borders where not too many plants will grow well. Japanese windflowers (Anemone x hybrida) are a good example. I adore their exquisite flowers on graceful long stems in late summer and autumn, but they do spread widely and are almost impossible to get rid of once they have settled in - which funnily enough, for many rampageous plants, can often take a while! I have coralled them with a cement-edged path, and they have spread happily between large bushes of Hydrangea macrophylla in a shaded bed.
It sometimes works to pit one spreading plant against another in such a garden area, if you want some foliage or flower contrast. In the same border, I have the toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) fighting against the Japanese windflower for supremacy. For years I tried to get rid of the toad lily, which had arrived in my garden many years ago as a gift from a friend, wrapped in a piece of damp paper towel. It has attractive spotted leaves and curious, dainty freckled purple flowers in autumn - and one of the most tenacious root systems of any plant I have ever grown. Yet on the recent garden crawl run by our local garden club, I saw it making a magnificent lush groundcover along a path in a shaded area in one of the gardens we visited. I decided then and there to give up this very unequal battle and let it fight it out with the windflower.
Another vigorous coloniser is oregano. Last week, I talked about the role of attractive edible plants in the garden and I forgot to mention golden oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'). I have this growing in an area with hot-coloured flowers and its gorgeous golden leaves form a wonderful groundcover below bright red dayliles, yellow Osteospermum cultivar 'Voltage' and the lime-yellow bracts of Euphorbia characias subsp. wallichii. It also looks brilliant with blue flowers. I rein it in every spring and cut it back hard: it soon recovers and forms billowing cushions of gold that delight me every time I see them.
Sweet violets can actually be quite invasive in their own way, determinedly self-seeding and spreading by runners in a place they find to liking. When I found a patch of my garden overrun by violets, I decided to make a feature of it, by adding white and pink cultivars to the original purple ones. The resulting patchwork of dainty blooms thrills me each winter and spring, and the leaves do make an excellent groundcover for the rest of the year.
Another spreader is the woodland iris Iris japonica, which also flowers in late winter and early spring, expanding via long runners to form wide clumps of its leafy fans and dainty clusters of simple pale blue or white flowers. Because it is so shallow rooted - and enjoys shade - it is ideal for filling empty spaces under trees, with very little maintenance required. I team it with another tough customer: Crassula multicava (London pride), for its contrasting chunky rounded foliage and sprays of tiny pink and white blooms at the same time as the Iris. It is an almost indestructible plant.
What these plants have actually taught me is that a mass of one thing is usually more successful visually than the puny, individual well-behaved specimens dotted around my garden. It really is better to buy a few of the same thing to create impact ... or maybe to use more thugs???
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