Category Archives: Invasives

The Good, The Bad, And The Weedy

By | Invasives | 5 Comments

Good: There are spotted salamander spermatophores in my pond! (And also egg masses, lots of them, and some frog eggs, but dude, spermatophores!)

Bad: I should not be allowed to go to the nursery with the huge selection of salvias without a minder. I, um, got a few more than I realized. Many of them get five or six feet tall. Um. Send help.

Weedy: I spent all this morning pulling out pepperweed, which really loves a cool wet spring and went rioting through my garden this year. I can turn a blind eye to chickweed because it’ll die off in the heat, I am perfectly happy to have white clover covering areas as long as it lets the perennials grow through, I have made some peace with the corn speedwell and the henbit, but pepperweed is on the list of Things That Must Die.

At least it pulls easily.


It’s a collection, damnit!

By | Invasives, My Garden | 5 Comments

So I have this native plant collection.

Seriously. I did a count t’other day, and there’s over a hundred different natives that I put in the ground, and that’s different species and doesn’t even include all the different variations (I hit a big plant sale late last autumn when they had a LOT of asters half-price, and now there’s a large section that’s solid aster cultivars. Haven’t a clue what it’ll look like next fall, but here’s hoping…)

And those were just the ones that are still alive.

From this you can assume that I’ve got A) a large yard and B) sufficient disposable income to satisfy a rather obscure hobby. It’s actually not that spendy, particularly when nice people at the arboretum learn of your passion and are happy to dump random plants on you, or if you haunt a lot of end-of-season sales, but yes, this is indeed my primary hobby. Not that you could have guessed or anything…

As a result, my garden is exactly the sort of garden we are told by designers absolutely not to have—the plant “collection” where there’s one of everything and nothing is related. If I am feeling self-justification-y, I will plead that this is in the spirit of research as I am still new to gardening in the Southeast and if something does very well, I go out and buy five more, as in my mountain mint planting or all that Husker Red penstemon and swamp-milkweed, and two black-eyed-susans going full-throttle are definitely not a “specimen planting,” and anyway, one bee-balm turns into EIGHTY FREAKIN’ MILLION given thirty seconds and a little rain, so it’s a mass planting NOW and…um…what was I talking about?

Right. Garden design, don’t have a plant collection, whatever. Those people can bite me. The chief function of the garden, as Henry Mitchell once wrote, is to bring delight to the gardener. My collection brings me incessant delight. I can kill an hour in early spring just wandering around checking on plants. If you want to show up and complain that it looks like a patchwork quilt designed by a blind man on LSD, that’s your prerogative, but I will have words, probably starting with “No, really, do I know you and how did you find out where I live, anyway?”

Anyway. Right. Native plants. I collect them. Some people do commemorative spoons or Star Trek plates, I do native plants. They don’t have to be pretty. They honestly don’t even have to be useful–closed bottle gentian’s an awesomely weird little plant, and as far as I know, hosts no specific bug, has no useful properties, and the poor thing’s endangered and threatened in a lot of places to boot, so obviously I HAD to grow it.*

However,  I read yet another garden blog today that reported “push-back against native-plant purists,” and wondered yet again who the heck these purist people are. I have had readers tell me they exist, that they occasionally button-hole nursery owners and lecture them, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt these reports, so clearly there are some weird native-plant trolls out there.

So let me just state the following, for the record, lest anyone assume that I am among their number—and honestly, given the number of times I talk and rhapsodize about native plants, I can sorta see how you got there, and anybody who plants a hundred of ANYTHING is probably suspect.


I have no problem with most non-native plants. I am all for them. What Sara Stein called “well-behaved immigrants” are welcome in my garden any day of the week. I have a fair number of non-natives, including Walker’s Low Catmint, Jerusalem Sage, Autumn Fire Sedum, calamint, pineapple sage, all those wonderful Agastaches and pretty much my entire vegetable garden, and we’ve already talked about my little Salvia problem.  The aforementioned catalog of my garden turned up thirty-odd non-natives I’ve planted, and I’ve got at least that many that are only what I call native-ish—i.e. they’re from somewhere within driving distance. Texas and Florida has some awfully neat stuff in it, and if it’ll grow here, fantastic.

I do not expect everyone to share my deranged passion for natives. As far as I’m concerned most plants are better than no plants whatsoever. If you want to grow nothing but azaleas and boxwood, it is no skin off my teeth. No, I don’t think it’s very exciting, no, it doesn’t do a lot of ecological heavy lifting, but it’s also not hurting anything, and some generalist bugs are still going to benefit, so that’s a net win, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, it would be nice if we had more native plant options. Some native plants really do a lot more ecological heavy lifting on the bug front than any non-native ever could. And even a couple of native plants in a garden is better than none, and I think if every gardener put in just one or two native plants, it would be awesome, and it might make some bugs very happy. That’s really all I ask there. I don’t expect everybody to take up a plant collection like mine, I don’t expect people to get terribly excited by little plastic pots of American Mandrake or Mountain Dog-hobble or Rattlesnake-Master (although hey, are those great names or what?)  And almost any plant is better than no plant at all, as far as bugs are concerned.

Even azaleas and boxwoods beat the hell out of concrete.

Where I draw the line is when people plant thugs. If I have to spend hours of my gardening time wrenching out the spawn of something you planted, this makes me a trifle grumpy. I would much rather be sipping a mint julep and reading inspirational literature to my closed bottle gentian than spending the day yanking Himalayan blackberry runners and swearing every time a thorn goes through my goat-hide gloves.**

And let’s not even talk about the Screaming Buttweed (aka Japanese honeysuckle.) We hates it, Baggins, we hates it forever.

I do not feel this is an unreasonable point of view. Don’t plant things that make life harder for other people. (Bamboo, I am looking in your direction!) And I realize that people get very upset when they find out that a plant they really like is a thug, and frequently they get defensive about it, because there’s often a very sentimental component to gardening, and thus there is a tendency to start arguing that people are just purists who don’t want ANYBODY to have nice plants. Hey, my Grandma planted Japanese honeysuckle, I know how it goes! But my emotional response doesn’t give me the right to make life harder for all the neighbors around me, or for the poor Forest Service, who is already spending a truly obscene portion of their budget trying to get rid of some of this stuff.

I have heard from readers who would like to garden, but are in a sea of goutweed or ivy or bamboo coming in from the other yards and have thrown up their hands in despair. I think this is very sad. I don’t think it’s kind to do this to your neighbors, but I understand that some people don’t realize that they are being horticulturally unkind by doing so, which is why you have read this same speech from me, in variation, about fifty times now, and will probably continue to do so every time I have to spend a week tearing out buttweed.***

So. To sum up, because as usual that got way long:

Native plants good!

Well-behaved non-native plants also pretty good!

Thugs bad!

Really, that’s all.



*If you understood this justification, you are either a gardener or a collector of something.

**Whenever I read somebody dismissing invasive plants as no big deal or overblown or whatever, I just want to invite them to my garden in early spring, when the Himalayan blackberry and the honeysuckle are both going at once. I can only assume that they do not garden in the sub-tropical Southeast and thus have not actually encountered invasive plants on the scale that some of us live with. Presumably a good multiflora rose thicket would have a similar educational effect.

***Honestly, if I had goutweed, I might just napalm the whole place down to bedrock. It’s the only way to be sure.

Wine and Grumbling

By | Invasives | 5 Comments

Some days I think the sole purpose of the internet is to make me angry. Then I turn on NPR and wonder if the sole purpose of news of any sort is to make me angry. Then I dismiss this news-as-solipsism and go haul bags of manure, which tends to take the edge off. Very few outrages can sustain themselves through 400 lbs of steer crap, and if it does, I can always go get rocks and build beds.  (I finished digging the pond, so that’s out.)

Someday the entire garden will be bedded and ponded and manured and then I will probably have to go on Valium or something.  I can’t dig a second pond. A second pond is just crazy talk…glorious, glorious crazy talk…

Ahem. Where was I?

Right, right. Anyway, so many of the things that make me angry are beyond my ability to talk about rationally. Compare abortion to slavery and I am reduced to anguished frothing, tell me about Libya and Wisconsin and the frothing becomes even more anguished and by the end of the week I am reading Barbara Kingsolver essays in the middle of Panera and trying not to cry into my bread bowl, because I am very small and there is so little that I can DO.

But one thing I CAN address, and that’s the smaller argument goin’ down in gardening circles at the moment, which also makes me angry, and which I feel reasonably equipped to talk about it.

So a coupla weeks back, a scientific paper came out that said, in effect, “Honeysuckle-covered areas of Pennsylvania attract a lot of fruit-eating birds. There are lots of robins and catbirds there eating the berries, more than in areas without honeysuckle. They also eat any other fruit in the area. Go figure.”

This is perfectly sensible. They’re fruit-eating birds. It’s a fruit. There’s a lot of it. They come eat it. I have no quibble with the science or the scientists involved. I think they’re probably right–there probably ARE quite a lot of fruit-eating birds eating that fruit. This is perfectly good science, and I gots no beef with it.  I quibble with some of their conclusions, but I have no problem with the observational science.

And then a surprising number of gardening blogs and nursery newsletters jumped on this to say “Look! This means invasive species aren’t a big deal after all! Go tell your friends who got into native plants after reading Bringing Nature Home to relax, already!”

It was really kinda messed up. (Some of these people have SEEN kudzu, too. I question how anyone can witness kudzu in action and not think that invasive species are maybe kinda a problem worth considering, but there you have it…)

About the only thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out in big elaborately-dyed chunks is that quote from Gandhi–“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We sure haven’t won, but hell, at least we’re past the ignoring stage.

I am sure most of my readers are fully capable of seeing the problems here, but let me go off, because A) it makes me feel better, and B) I’ve had wine.

Robins and catbirds, the two species mentioned in the article, are generalists. They eat a lotta stuff. And they are perfectly good birds, even charming birds, but I want more than two birds in my garden.

So I want to know about the wood-warblers, about the hummingbirds, about the woodpeckers. How are they handling a life over-run by honeysuckle? I want to know about whip-poor-wills and hawks, mice and moles, the elegant little shoe-string sized ringneck snakes and the big black racers, the salamanders and the cricket frogs.

And how about the bugs? How about the pollinators, in fact? I’m sure they ate hearty when the honeysuckle bloomed, but that was too late for a lot of them, since the honeysuckle also leafed out early and shaded out the spring ephemeral flowers that serve as the first meal for a great many pollinators.  And the hummingbirds probably had a good meal too, but I suspect they had to leave after that and find somewhere else to breed, since a honeysuckle-strangled world offers far fewer flowers later in the year. Come to think of it, robins have to feed their young bugs like everybody else–what are the breeding numbers like, long-term, in a honeysuckle-dominated area? A quick snack for migrants, I can see, but I bet it’s not preferred nesting areas…well, anyway.

So honeysuckle thickets aren’t quite as ecologically dead as kudzu forests. Whoopty-freakin’-doo, sez I. This is good news in the “not-quite-as-horrible-as-we-thought” sense, but hailing it as “Therefore stop worrying about invasive species! By the way, we have a special on privet and barberry!” makes me want to scream and bite things, or perhaps take a very long nap. (A NAP OF RAGE! Oh, shut up, like you’ve never done it…)

Even leaving all that aside, let me point out that A) you cannot generalize about the effects on an entire ecosystem by the effects of one plant in one area on a couple of specific species. There are tons of pigeons and rats in Manhattan, but the success of those two species in those conditions does not mean that paving over the world and putting up skyscrapers would be good for vertebrate species across the board–all it means is that a couple of very adaptable species can adapt and thrive.

Sigh. A little science in the hands of people who want to be reassured that THEY can’t possibly be doing anything bad to the planet is a dangerous thing. I hate bad science. I hate good science made into bad science by people with agendas. And certainly no nursery could have a hidden agenda or anything. It’s not like they make all their money selling exotic plants or anything.

Oh. Wait. Hmm.


Apparently this is a backlash to all those so-called “native purists” I keep hearing about, who want nothing that isn’t native and chew you out if you plant catmint or cannas.  I would like to meet one some day, because I still haven’t. (I once had a nursery owner get really pissy with me when I said that I was big into native plants and asked if she had any inkberry holly. There was eye-rolling and sighing. I instantly became a problem customer. Presumably a busload of these legendary purists had just left, after spitting on her privet bushes and making unkind comments about her Bradford pears—that’s the only explanation I got.) Now, I’m huge into native plants, I love them, I collect them, I have, at last count, put in over a hundred different native species into this 2.5 acre madhouse I live in, and god, if that’s not obsession, what is?—but I am still not out there slapping the azaleas from anyone’s hands. (I rather like azaleas. And I have tons of Walker’s Low Catmint, a pomegranate sapling, cannas, my salvia collection of doom…I will plant non-natives with a glad heart, as long as they don’t eat the freakin’ world. And goddamn, if the deer keep biting off mouthfuls of my “Autumn Fire” sedum and spitting them out, I am seriously gonna cut a bitch.)

…I had a point there. Hang on. Yes. More wine. Yes.

Robins and catbirds are very adaptable, and more power to ’em. But I would kinda like to live in a world that also had, oh, warblers and trillium, sparrows and sapsuckers—hell, wolves and tigers and moose and ostriches, pileated woodpeckers and jack-in-the-pulpit and frogs. I would like the whole world not to look the SAME. I would like to go to the desert and have it look like the desert, the forest look like the forest, the swamp be an-honest-to-god swamp. I do not want the whole world to look like a subdivision. I would like to eat at someplace other than McDonald’s. And if we’re all planting all the same invasives, and all the same highly adaptable species are surviving, and all the others are quietly expiring under the kudzu, I don’t think we gain anything, and I think we lose a lot.

More wine, damnit. More wine.

A rose by any other name would not sell as well.

By | Invasives | 7 Comments

So Kevin cleared out the old playset from the backyard Sunday, and the result is just…incredible. We’d been saying for over a year that we needed to get rid of it, but being busy-and-lazy as we are, it didn’t happen until Kevin ran over one end with the riding lawnmower and couldn’t get it loose and by the time he’d extracted both mower and himself, demolition was already well under way.

The amount to which the playset was blocking our view was incredible. Your eyes just kind of went to it naturally–I mean, it was huge and garish and had swings–and I never realized how many things our eyes weren’t going to. Like the trees, and the wood’s edge, and that fact that we have really quite a large backyard.

Being me, I immediately started trying to ID some of the trees, many of which grow throughout the wooded area, but which I had not come quite so up-close-and-personal with, and some of which I’d been meaning to ID forever.

Some interesting discoveries–that’s juniper cedar back there, and that weird thing with the freaky bark is not diseased but a winged elm (aka wahoo elm) used to make hockey sticks, Carolina red maple (a subspecies of red maple) is the thing that looks sort of like sweetgum and grows just as psychotically, and that stuff all over the back is…pignut hickory.

Pignut. Really?

I have this theory. My theory is that Shakespeare was wrong, and the names of plants really do influence us. Skunk cabbage is a great plant, but just try to find someone (other than my mother and Sara Stein) to sing its praises. You can chop down something named “pignut” without grief. “Wahoo” elm is just weird. Rename it “majestic hickory” or “divine elm” and they’d be a protected species and Thoreau would have had an epiphany at one.

But silktree–silk is lovely! Let’s keep that, while it conquers the world and crowds out natives. Take my scourge, Japanese honeysuckle. A lovely word, honeysuckle. Everybody loves honey! It drips off the tongue…and the fence and the pignut hickory and the wahoo elm and the dirt and the stunted but alive juniper cedar that I cleared by hand yesterday and had no idea was even back there. And Japan is a lovely country and I watch Ninja Warrior religiously in the evenings and eat more sushi than is probably healthy, and also I was born in Yokosuka. I like Japan.

How could anyone hate something called Japanese honeysuckle?

Well, grim experience, mostly. I expressed this to Kevin, who agreed that my theory had merit, but rejected its logical extension–that we immediately rename Japanese honeysuckle to “screaming buttweed”–as unlikely to gain widespread traction.

So I cleared the screaming buttweed from another stand of hearts-a-bursting, and that exhausted me sufficiently to come in and start working on today’s quota of Batbreath.

Also I just picked a caterpillar out of my hair. I am a fan of caterpillars, I am trying hard to make the world better for them, so I only screamed a little and then put it on a scrap of paper and took it back outside.

They live!

By | Day-to-Day, Invasives | 2 Comments

Apparently nearly-ninety degree temps are what my garden was waiting for. It looks like half the plants grew an inch yesterday. The buttonbush broke dormancy and is getting buds, the tiny painted buckeye seedling is roaring along, and the wild quinine shot up so fast that I wonder if it’s overheard the local mosquitoes plotting something malarial.

Several great rediscoveries. The wild indigo, which I chucked in the Deathbed and had given up on, was suddenly very much alive and accounted for. I spent a few minutes freeing it from the grasp of the honeysuckle. The Jacob’s ladder I dropped into a shady bit of the drainage ditch, which I was pretty sure had died off in summer, returned, and is actually going to flower.

And to my great and enduring delight–the butterfly weed I planted last year is alive! I was poking the calamint, which is coming back dutifully, if not enthusiastically, and there it was–two tiny green nubbins. It may actually like it there! (It didn’t flower last year. Maybe this year…)

Once I had finished doing the happy dance for my new arrivals, I headed into the backyard and spent most of an hour tearing out honeysuckle, which handily crushed any joy I might be feeling. Oy.

What you’re seeing there is a very small chunk of the backyard. Most of the green you see in the image–other than the sporadic grass in the foreground–is Japanese honeysuckle. The tree trunk in the background is attached to a tree that is quite dead. The sapling bowed over under the weight of vines is still alive, barely, but so badly girdled that it may not survive. (I think it’s a sweet gum, so I don’t much care.)

At a conservative estimate, this photo represents perhaps 1/50th of the total honeysuckle problem on the property.

On the bright side, I freed another chunk of hearts a-bursting, and finished slicing the stems for the big mat engulfing the chain link fence. The fence I did last week is already withering. Unfortunately, since it’s worked all the way through, I have no idea how I’m going to get it OFF the fence…I may pull as much as I can, and leave the dead bits for the native honeysuckle to cover up.

But it was a productive morning anyhow. And now, to work on Batbreath…