I once read that if you want to have a successful garden you need to find what grows well at your house and grow lots of it. I don’t know who said this but I wish I did because it was the best bit of gardening advice I have ever received. I have followed this advice and I have discovered that a lot of the things that grow really well for me on my little patch of black land prairie in Washington County are things that a lot of people call invasive.
Now let me explain a little before I make a bunch of people mad. In my opinion, there are two types of invasive species in the plant world. Some invasive species are really, really invasive and they should be avoided at all costs. Japanese Honeysuckle and kudzu are classic examples of invasive species that have over run great swaths of the South. Some of these species are so invasive that state governments actually prohibit the sale or export of them (http://www.texasinvasives.org/). However, the “invasive plants” that I grow belong to what I like to think of as a second class of invasives. Many of the plants I grow in my garden have been tagged as “invasive” by some gardener or nursery in a specific part of the country or in specific growing conditions. What is invasive in Kansas in an annual in my yard (Echinacea purpurea). Through trial and error I have learned that a lot of the “invasive plants” in this second category are actually worth a try in your garden.
Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittonian) is an example of an invasive that has just not panned out in my garden. I won a pot of ruellia at our annual church festival. I was very excited. I had recently seen a very large and attractive clump of it at the Austin International Airport. (UNRELATED NOTE: This is one of the many reasons that I love being Catholic. I can go to my church festival and drink beer and gamble for plants all in name of raising money for a good cause). My wife warned me not to plant it because she had heard it was invasive. So, being a good husband, I looked it up before I planted it. Sure enough, the internet said it was indeed invasive. So, like many times before, I ignored my wife’s advice and the internet’s warning and I planted it any way. Much to my chagrin, it has not shown any evidence of being very invasive in my garden. I planted it along a low fence three years ago, hoping it would create a thick back drop for the rest of my bed. So far it has been somewhat of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, it is healthy and it comes back year after year but it has not spread the way I had hoped.
Another invasive favorite of mine is yarrow. I got my yarrow from my wife’s grandmother. According to all of my horticultural friends, Nana gave me the most invasive type of yarrow known to man: Achellia millefolium. Invasive or not, I love this stuff. It’s deep green, lacy foliage is a great contrast to many of the plants in my beds. The white flower heads attract butterflies and other interesting beetles. You can cut and dry the entire plant (flower head and all) and if your cow has an upset tummy you can feed it to her. It looks great alone or with other flowers in a cut arrangement. Even though it does act a little invasive, I plant it everywhere. It has very shallow root system and it is very easy to pull, so I don’t really care if it spreads. If you need to fill up a blank spot in your bed quickly, I suggest yarrow.
Last winter I hit the invasive jackpot. My wife and I bought a large and very heavy terracotta pot at an estate sale. (UNRELATED NOTE 2: Why does my wife always buy the heaviest thing for sale at estate sales?) It was full of soil and unidentifiable dry plant material. I put it out on the porch and forgot about it. Well, this spring the pot came alive! In the center was a lovely Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeana). Growing around the edges of the pot was another lovely plant with very attractive chartreuse colored, oblate leaves. There was also something else growing that looked like mondo poking up. So, I did what any plant person would do, I dug them out and put them in their own pots so I could see what they would become. The mondo looking plant turned out to be Airplane Plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and it is now filling two hanging baskets on my back porch. The chartreuse colored plant turned out to be Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum). This old fashioned plant used to be pretty popular in Southern gardens but seems to have fallen out of favor lately (maybe because it really is very invasive). However, you can still find it for sale on the internet. The Opar is truly invasive at my house. It has a moisture filled “bulb” above the roots. Because of this, it can stay alive for over a week once it has been removed from a pot. It is also an aggressive self seeder. If you let this thing produce flowers you will have Opar in every pot on your porch.
Ruellia, Yarrow, Airplane Plant and Jewels of Opar are not the only plants in my garden that have been labeled by some as invasive. If you look hard enough you can find an article or website that will tell you that just about every plant you can think of is invasive. I did a quick Google search and found out that all of the following plants from my garden are invasive: Shasta daisy, cannas, rudbeckia, daylily, butterfly bush, and Brazilian Verbena. According to this list, if you do not plant anything in your garden that has an invasive warning attached to it somewhere you will have a very sparse garden.
My experience has shown me that there are two types of invasive plants available to gardeners. Before planting anything new in your garden, do some homework. Always check to see if a plant is truly invasive in your area before you plant it. The state sites that I mentioned are a great place to let you know which plants a definite no-no for your area. However, if you have been told that a plant you like is invasive but it is not on the prohibited list, go ahead and give it a try. If you are really worried about it, plant in a pot. If it does well, transplant it. If it does too well, stop watering it. It is really that simple.