Most gardeners have been there at some point. Whether faced with a tiny yard or wide open spaces, filling our newly dug garden with perennials seemed a daunting task. Heading to the local nursery to get the job done is often not feasible, depending on the size of the garden.
Sharing plants and plant wisdom is one of my most favorite things about gardening. Gardeners are generous people by nature and seem to love to share plants and to teach each other what they know. I was a blank slate when I moved into my current home and started carving gardens out of the sandy soil, and my friends were there to help. Not only do I remember and recognize every single perennial in my garden that was given to me by a friend, but I remember the odd little stories that go along with each.
I’m famously bad at remembering plant names, but I have one plant in my long perennial border that, at least ten years after receiving it from a friend, I still call the “specimen plant.” When she so generously arrived with one more in a series of boxes of confusing balls of soil and roots, she pulled one clump out, saying, “this one is a real specimen plant.”
I’m sure I’d be a better person if I knew its real name but this makes me smile every time, remembering the many plants she shared with me to help me get that forty-foot border started.
Unfortunately, not all memories of plant gifts make me smile. In fact, a few make me curse.
A gardening coworker, about fourteen years ago, offered me white violets that she was supposedly “dividing” in her garden. Recalling early childhood garden moments spent picking tiny bouquets of purple violets and johnny jump-ups, I envisioned a similarly pleasant scene in my new garden. Encouragingly, she said, “You’ll love them; they’ll spread.” I don’t think she had love in her heart when she made that offer.
Those blasted white violets are the most invasive plants my garden has encountered. Any attempt to dig them up only causes them to retaliate by multiplying. Allowing them to show their sweet little blooms is sure to result in thousands of tiny seedlings the next spring. Their knobby roots make them ridiculously hard to remove.
At about the same time, I wandered into a not so reputable nursery, in search of cheap perennials. I found a pretty, variegated plant, that the owner told me was a groundcover that “would spread beautifully.” He told me it was ajuga, although I’m sure he didn’t specify what variety. I really only heard the words “spread beautifully.” I bought one.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours, I’m sure, digging ajuga from all corners of my yard. It’s now growing behind my yard in the woods, not seeming to care if it has sun or not. I have since learned of, and acquired, a couple of very well-behaved, small purple ajugas, but this one would eat my shed if left alone. It spreads by sending out runners, then putting down roots wherever it can, which is anywhere.
If I were at all entrepreneurial, I’d probably dig all the ajuga plants in my yard up (as I imagine that nursery owner must have done), pot them and sell them from a fly-by-night roadside stand. I could make a big sign saying, “Perfect Plants: Will Spread Like Crazy!”
A north country friend is establishing a new shade garden and I’ve offered to share a few things from my garden. Of course, I love the idea that she might walk through her yard one day and remember a story about a plant I passed along. Mindful of having been wronged by at least one generous gardener of the past (not a friend–friends know they’ll be around when the cursing begins years later), I’m considering giving her a box of my favorite all-time ground cover, sweet woodruff.
Sweet woodruff does spread. It blooms in May into a beautiful flotilla of tiny white blossoms. In my garden, it spreads in a slow, predictable way. It doesn’t burrow under the foundation and appear on the other side of the house, or leap through the air. It just spreads a little more and becomes a little more dense each year.
Can I be assured it will behave this way in another garden? As long as she’s not planting it in a very wet area, it should behave itself. It’s a little risky, but it’s a beautiful plant, so I’ll take the risk. If I hear my friend cursing in a few years, I’ll be there to help.
Update: I now know, thanks to reader Pam, that the photo above is not ajuga, but an invasive lamium. Funny that it never occurred to me that that garden center guy himself could have misidentified the plant. That’s probably a good indication that he did, in fact, dig it up himself, with dollar signs dancing in his head all the while. Buyer beware!