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Gardening with Weeds

A combination of the flowers of three plants often considered weeds: crown vetch (Coronilla varia), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and common fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Weeds: the bane of any gardener’s existence. But…are they really?
When we’re new gardeners, we figure that anything we didn’t plant is probably a weed and pull or dig it out. We eventually catch on that sometimes our “good” plants produce useful seedlings, and gradually we learn to recognize which little plants to remove and which can stay. Ah, but then there are the mystery plants–we assume they’re probably weeds (particularly if they look really strong and healthy), but we leave them just in case they might be something desirable. And sometimes they are both: technically weeds, but also interesting enough to keep—at least for a short time.

Working with What You Get

Accepting that some weeds can double as temporary ornamentals can take some of the pressure off the drive for a weed-free garden. They might be rather attractive in leaf or flower despite their tendency to reseed with abandon, or they might fill a space where nothing else grows well anyway.

Yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) and pink-flowered tuberous-rooted Jerusalem sage (Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone') in combination with other plants in a garden setting
Back when this garden was new, a plant of yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) seeded in and made a beautiful show with the pink spikes of ‘Amazone’ tuberous-rooted Jerusalem sage (Phlomis tuberosa). I let it go to seed, but no seedlings appeared, and I’ve never seen it around here since.

Granted, there are some plants that deserve a zero-tolerance approach. Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) are a few at the top of my own hit list. Once they come in, all three of these can spread by rhizomes. It just makes sense to pursue these creepers early and often, because every day you leave them gives them that much more chance to extend their reach.

Weeds that spread only by self-sowing offer a bit more flexibility, maintenance-wise. They’re not going to cause more trouble until they start flowering and setting seed, so you can concentrate on other tasks until then. You just need to promise yourself that you will watch them closely and remove them well before they self-sow. And if you don’t, then you have to accept the consequences of even more weeding in following years. Below are some potential seeders that I tend to tolerate, though not encourage, in my garden.

The flowers of tall fleabane (Erigeron annuus), also known as annual fleabane, with 'Governor George Aiken' mullein (Verbascum) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
The flowers of eastern daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), also known as annual fleabane, with ‘Governor George Aiken’ mullein (Verbascum)
Erigeron annuum (eastern daisy fleabane): I have mixed feelings about eastern daisy fleabane. I pull out every seedling I find for months, and it still manages to elude me. It’s actually rather attractive when it flowers, with small, white, daisy-form flowers atop 3- to 5-foot-tall stems, starting here (Southeastern PA) in late spring and continuing through the summer—often into fall as well. It’s native, so I guess it’s technically a wildflower, but its propensity to self-sow all over makes it a weed in my book. It’s an attractive weed, though.

Common teasel (<em>Dipsacus fullonum</em>) in flower with the foliage of 'Dallas Blues' switch grass (<em>Panicum virgatum</em>) and the blooms of purple coneflower (<em>Echinacea purpurea</em>) in a garden setting
Common teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) in flower with the foliage of ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and the blooms of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in a garden setting

Dipsacus fullonum (common teasel): This biennial produces dense, low rosettes of deep green, prickly leaves the first year; the next year, it sends up 4- to 6-foot-tall, even-more-prickly stems topped with bold, egg-shaped flower heads that are ringed with tiny purple blooms in summer. This one is definitely a weed: it’s not native and is in fact considered invasive or noxious in some states. The darn thing is really interesting to look at, though. I dig out the first-year rosettes when I find them, or mow down the plants when they flower in the meadow. Every once in a while, though, I do let one or two plants flower, just because they are so striking. Goldfinches feast on the seeds, too.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare, also known as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), in flower (bloom) in a garden setting with yellow-variegated 'Fiesta' forsythia (Forsythia) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare, also known as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), with yellow-variegated ‘Fiesta’ forsythia (Forsythia)
Leucanthemum vulgare or Chrysanthemum leucanthemum (oxeye daisy): A pretty but super-prolific self-sower, oxeye daisy is another non-native that is classified as invasive and/or prohibited in some states. This is another one that I generally remove on sight and still end up with every year. If it’s in a good spot when it blooms, I’ll let it stay and flower for a bit—those bright white daisies are eye-catching in late spring–then pull it out before it makes seed. I don’t worry about it too much, though, because it doesn’t crowd out other plants even where I’ve missed some.

The white flowers of Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota var. carota) in a garden combination with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota var. carota) with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Daucus carota var. carota (Queen Anne’s lace): Yet another non-native that’s invasive in some areas, this biennial is well known for its lacy leaves and broad umbels of tiny white flowers in summer. I made the mistake of letting some flower early on in my front border and have pulled out seedlings for years. It grows all around here anyway, in meadows and on roadsides, so I’ll always have it around whether I want it or not.

A natural pink-flowered variant of Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota var. carota) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
A natural pink-flowered variant of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota var. carota)
I used to be excited to find pink-flowered plants in the meadow, because they seemed so special. Now, we can easily buy seed of pink- or purple-flowered strains.

'Purple Kisses' Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota var. carota), a seed strain that flowers in a range of colors from white to pink to deep red or purple [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘Purple Kisses’ Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota var. carota), a seed strain that flowers in a range of colors from white to pink to deep red or purple

The first-year foliage rosette (leaves) of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) with 'Toffee Twist' brown sedge (Carex) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
The first-year foliage rosette of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Verbascum thapsus (common mullein): Common mullein is yet another sometimes-invasive exotic, but oh, it’s so hard to resist those dense, fuzzy, first-year rosettes, and the stout, second-year spires of yellow flowers are showy too. It isn’t generally a problem in densely planted garden areas; it’s more likely to pop up along border edges, in empty spots where spring bulbs have gone dormant, and in other areas where there’s bare soil. I enjoy common mullein as a foliage filler where space allows, and I often let it stay into the second summer.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and leek (Allium ampeloprasum) in flower with hare's ear (Bupleurum rotundifolium), 'Becky' Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), and 'Dallas Blues' switch grass (Panicum virgatum) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and leek (Allium ampeloprasum) in flower with hare’s ear (Bupleurum rotundifolium), ‘Becky’ Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), and ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum)
By cutting off the main spike below the lowest flowers as those blooms are pretty much done, you can encourage new, shorter stems to branch out and extend the flowering period, if you want. Just make sure you remove the plants before the second flush of flowers set seed.


Red clover (Trifolium pratense) in a mixed border with 'Gerald Darby' iris (Iris x robusta) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) with ‘Gerald Darby’ iris (Iris x robusta)
Trifolium pratense (red clover): It’s not native, but it’s often planted for forage and hay, and it pops up throughout my meadow. It’s in the garden too—possibly because it comes in directly through the meadow or maybe from seeds in Duncan’s manure (he adores red clover fresh and in his hay as well). Unless it comes up in a bad spot—in the middle of a path, for instance—I almost always leave it. Besides providing many weeks of alpaca snacks, and sweet flowers for my tea, it’s very pretty in both leaf and flower, and it doesn’t crowd out companions.

A variegated sport of red clover (Trifolium pratense) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I spotted this variegated sport of red clover (Trifolium pratense) on the side of our road when Duncan and I were out for a walk one day. I’d planned to watch it and collect seed, but sadly, it was cut down later that day and did not reappear. I once tried growing a yellow-variegated one, sold as ‘Susan Smith’; it was a beauty but didn’t last long.

Closeup of the flowers and leaves of scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) plant [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)
Anagallis arvensis (scarlet pimpernel): I once overhead a lively discussion about scarlet pimpernel in which someone said that if it were difficult to grow, gardeners would be clamoring to have it. I wouldn’t go that far, but this little annual does have a certain charm. Though it appears on lists of lawn and garden weeds, and some sources claim it is aggressive, I don’t find it problematic when it pops up along the edges of paths or borders. It’s low and somewhat trailing, with thin stems and small leaves, and not big or vigorous enough to weaken or smother companion plants.


Seeking out Silly Weeds

Tolerating weeds that show up uninvited is one thing; actively looking for interesting weeds and adding them to the garden is another thing altogether. Because weeds are, by their nature, prolific spreaders, it’s not all that uncommon to find natural variants if you keep your eyes open.

A variegated sport of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, also known as Rhus toxicodendron) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
A variegated sport of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, also known as Rhus toxicodendron)–no, I didn’t try to propagate this one!
A variegated seedling of enchanter's nightshade (Circaea lutetiana subsp. canadensis) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
A variegated seedling of enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana subsp. canadensis) that I found in our woods. I made the HUGE mistake of transplanting a smaller one to my garden (where it turned all green at some point) and have been trying to get rid of it ever since.
A variegated stem of autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellatus) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Found this variegated stem of autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellatus) when I was removing the plants from my meadow. This is one I definitely didn’t keep.
A variegated seedling of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I wish I had kept an eye on this variegated seedling of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). If it made it to flowering size, it might have been very pretty (or, it might have looked sickly).
I’ve also seen variegated plants of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) over the years, but I didn’t try to bring them home. (Ok—I did snitch a few seeds from the garlic mustard, which was growing along a roadside, but they didn’t germinate. Thank goodness!)

The only weird weed I’ve found here that I consider garden-worthy is a variegated, woody-stemmed aster. I’m pretty sure it is a variant of frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), but I usually just call it Symphyotrichum ‘Hayefield Variegated’. It comes only about 50 percent true from seed, and the variegation tends to be unstable, but it’s interesting anyway.

The spring foliage (leaves) of variegated aster (Symphyotrichum 'Hayefield Variegated') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
The spring foliage of ‘Hayefield Variegated’ aster (Symphyotrichum)
The foliage (leaves) and growth habit of variegated aster (Symphyotrichum 'Hayefield Variegated') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘Hayefield Variegated’ aster (Symphyotrichum) in late summer
Other gardeners have found much showier and more stable weed variants. Some of these are now so common that we hardly think of them as weeds anymore—unless they return to their original green forms, at least.

The purple flowers of Allium aflatunense with the white-striped ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta 'Picta'); some of the variegated grass has reverted to the invasive all-green species, canary reed grass (Phalaris arundinacea) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
The white-striped ornamental grass known by the quaint names of ribbon grass and gardener’s garters (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta ‘Picta’) is a variegated form of, and can revert back to, the aggressively creeping invasive known as canary reed grass (P. arundinacea), visible here right behind the variegated part.
A combination of two perennial groundcovers with colorful, contrasting foliage (leaves): golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') and Chocolate Chip bugleweed (Ajuga reptans 'Valfredda') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
What about that darling of container gardeners: golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’)? I don’t recall ever seeing it revert to green in a pot, but I have some growing in the ground–here with Chocolate Chip ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Valfredda’)–and some of the green has occasionally appeared nearby. I can’t say if that’s a change in the golden or just the species seeding in, though, since that grows in nearby grassy areas.
Closeup of the variegated foliage (leaves) of 'Burns' Splashed' creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I haven’t seen it for sale around here recently, but variegated creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea ‘Variegata’) was widely available around here as a container “spiller” for many years. It was a pretty thing, but ugh, it had a sneaky way of heading straight to the ground and then rooting into the garden. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had stayed variegated, but either it or its seedlings were always green by the next year. The same thing happened to a yellow-variegated selection I got from Glasshouse Works ages ago: ‘Burns’ Splashed’ (above); no wonder it doesn’t seem to exist any longer.
The foliage (leaves) and growth habit of 'Buttered Popcorn' creeping buttercup (Ranculus repens) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is another, even more aggressive creeper. A while back, the yellow-mottled selection ‘Buttered Popcorn’ was popular, and you occasionally still see it in gardens as a groundcover. It’s very attractive and fine in a container on a hard surface (where its runners can’t reach the soil), but I always had trouble with other, definitely-weedy weeds getting into ground-level patches, so I eventually got rid of it.

I am always pulling Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) out of my garden. The slender, branching stems weave up through other plants, so it’s easy to miss them until they start covering up their companions. While it’s easy enough to pull out most of it, the brittle stems tend to break off near the base, leaving lot of bits that can resprout. All that annyoingness, of course, perfectly explains why I have deliberately maintained a variegated form shared with me by a blog reader many years ago: Commelina communis f. aureostriata.

The flowers and white-striped foliage (leaves) of variegated Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis f. aureostriata) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
You might expect variegated Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis f. aureostriata) to have yellow markings (“aureostriata” meaning “gold striped”), but it has bright white stripes. Or it doesn’t. Some of the plants have vivid striping their whole life, some start striped and turn green, and some seedlings are just the ordinary green all along. This oddity is definitely a collector’s thing, not a recommended general garden plant. It’s just as well there’s not much demand for it: though it self-sows enthusiastically, it’s tricky to collect the seeds for sharing.

Winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris), also known as yellow rocket, is a common sight in farm fields around here in spring, and its bright yellow flowers are hard to miss. I sometimes find first-year rosettes in my garden and usually pull them out, but sometimes I don’t notice them until they flower the next spring; in that case, I often let them stay until the flowers start to drop off.

The second-year spring rosette of biennial 'Winter Cream' winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris), showing the variegated leaves (foliage) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to grow the variegated version of winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris), sold variously as ‘Variegata’ or ‘Winter Cream’. I almost always lose it over the winter, however, despite the species being fully hardy here. The few rosettes that do make it are very pretty the following spring, and I wish they would self-sow.
Wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) is considered a noxious weed in several places, though not in Pennsylvania—yet, at least. I check the status each winter, because I do have a few seed-grown plants of both the dark-leaved ‘Ravenswing’ and the bright yellow ‘Golden Fleece’.

A plant of 'Ravenswing' cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also known as 'Ravenswing' wild chervil, in a garden setting [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Keeping the ornamental forms of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) going here is a challenge, probably because I collect nearly every seed they manage to produce. I have, however, seen ‘Ravenswing’ in other gardens in Bucks County where it has been allowed to seed freely and become a maintenance problem.
Closeup of the foliage (leaves) of 'Golden Fleece' cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also known as 'Golden Fleece' wild chervil [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘Golden Fleece’ wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) is much newer, so it’s not as widely grown as dark-leaved ‘Ravenswing’, but I image it could be equally problematic if left unsupervised.
Here’s one that seems to send even normally calm gardeners into hysterics: pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Just mention the name and they’ll start telling you how horrible it is, seeding everywhere and forming huge plants that are difficult to remove. I get it, trust me, so please don’t feel obliged to leave me nasty comments about having it in my garden. If you don’t like it, don’t grow it. I have the space for it, bees adore the flowers, and birds haunt the plants to grab most of the berries before I can collect them for the seeds.

The foliage (leaves) and flower of variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana 'Variegata', also known as 'Silberstein') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I don’t deliberately grow regular pokeweed (Phytolacca americana); it was here before I even started the garden and it will be here long after I leave. But I did start the variegated version, sold as either ‘Variegata’ or ‘Silberstein’, many years ago, and I still have one or two plants each year.
The foliage (leaves) and flower of variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana 'Variegata', also known as 'Silberstein') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I find it interesting to see how the markings on variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Variegata’ or ‘Silberstein’) vary from plant to plant. In my experience, all of the seedlings have some amount of speckling.
Variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana 'Variegata', also known as 'Silberstein') growing in a garden setting [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Most plants of variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Variegata’ or ‘Silberstein’) last only a few years for me, but there are always a few new ones that pop up each spring, and I leave them if they’re in a suitable place.
'Sunny Side Up' pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) in a garden setting [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Bright-leaved ‘Sunny Side Up’ pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is equally easy to grow from seed, but I usually find some greenish ones in with the bright yellow ones (discard the green). While ‘Variegata’ almost always has bright reddish pink stems, my ‘Sunny Side Up’ seedlings vary in stem color from plain green to reddish pink. (Sometimes, the reddish color develops more as the growing season progresses.)
The foliage (leaves) of variegated kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata 'Sherman's Ghost') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
One acquisition I do feel awkward about admitting to: variegated kudzu (Pueraria lobata ‘Sherman’s Ghost’). Yes, I actually paid money for a small plant of it from Glasshouse Works, back when I was in an active oddity-acquiring phase soon after starting this garden. Thank goodness it didn’t live more than a few months.
The foliage (leaves) of variegated self-heal (Prunella vulgaris 'Variegata') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Variegated heal-all (Prunella vulgaris ‘Variegata’) was another acquisition from Glasshouse Works, and this one is still in my garden. The species grows freely all around here, and this one seeds around too, though not as widely. It’s easy to spot the white- or cream-speckled new growth in spring and fall, and I usually leave the seedlings alone then, but I often end up pulling them out by mistake when they turn green in summer.
Closeup of the foliage (leaves) and an emerging flowerstalk of purple-leaved broadleaf plantain (Plantago major 'Atropurpurea') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Yet another weed that thrives here is broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major), so when I found a purple-leaved one (P. major ‘Atropurpurea’) through a seed exchange, I figured it was worth a try. It too grows happily here, but it needs a bit of attention to look its best.
Side view of a plant of purple-leaved broadleaf plantain (Plantago major 'Atropurpurea') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
If you start the seeds of purple broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major ‘Atropurpurea’) in a pot and set out individual seedlings in good soil, they can form quite wide rosettes and resemble something like a good-sized purple-leaved hosta. Once it self-sows, though, and many seedlings appear around the base of the parent, they end up competing for space and stay small and spindly. It’s worth keeping it deadheaded unless you want to collect the seeds.
A plant of variegated broadleaf plantain (Plantago major 'Variegata', also sold as P. asiatica 'Variegata'), showing the flower- and seed-stalks and foliage (leaves) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I started variegated broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major ‘Variegata’, also sold as P. asiatica ‘Variegata’) from seed-exchange seed and had a few volunteers here and there for many years. I haven’t seen any in the last two years, though, so I guess it’s gone. It was showy, in a small way, and I miss seeing it, but not enough to hunt for it again.
I don’t much mind ordinary dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) seeding into the garden and grass paths, because it provides plenty of tasty greens in spring without any effort on my part. I have not had nearly as much luck when trying to actively cultivate dandelions, though. I’ve raised several “ornamental” kinds from seed but have, embarrassingly, never gotten them to live more than a year or two.

A pot of seedlings of purple-leaved dandelion (Taraxacum rubifolium [incorrectly spelled rubrifolium]) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
My seedlings of red-leaved dandelion (Taraxacum rubifolium, also sold as T. rubrifolium) didn’t make it much past the transplanting stage.
A plant of variegated dandelion (Taraxacum officinale 'White Flash' or 'Variegated'), showing the yellow-splashed foliage (leaves) and yellow flower [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Variegated dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ‘White Flash’ or ‘Variegated’) had yellow-splashed foliage and yellow flowers. It went to seed but no variegated seedlings ever appeared.
A plant of pink dandelion (Taraxacum pseudoroseum), showing the leaves and flowers [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Isn’t this a pretty one? Pink dandelion (Taraxacum pseudoroseum) was easy to grow from seed, but it didn’t reseed before disappearing.

Like regular dandelion, white clover (Trifolium repens) grows freely in my paths and gardens, but it’s another one I’ve had no luck with when trying to establish ornamental selections. I think it would be great to have large patches of the silvery or maroon-leaved kinds in the grass paths. They’re gorgeous!

Closeup of the red foliage (leaves) of 'Limerick Jessica' ornamental clover ( Trifolium repens) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘Limerick Jessica’ white clover (Trifolium repens)
The foliage (leaves) of 'Limerick Estelle' white clover (Trifolium repens) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘Limerick Estelle’ white clover (Trifolium repens)
The silver-gray-and-green foliage (leaves) of '4 Luck Green Glow' ornamental clover (Trifolium repens) [Nancy J. Ondra/]
‘4 Luck Green Glow’ white clover (Trifolium repens)
The bright orange blooms of tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) are a sure sign that the fourth of July is nigh. It grows all over the roadsides around here and sometimes ends up in gardens too, where people want a flowering perennial that will fill a lot of space fast. It serves that purpose all right as a mass planting, but ooh, it can be a thug if you try to grow it with companions in good soil. Even knowing that, I couldn’t resist acquiring the selection ‘Kwanso Variegated’, not for its double flowers but for its white-striped foliage.

Variegated tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva 'Kwanso Variegata', also known as 'Kwanso Variegated' or 'Variegated Kwanso') in flower in a garden setting [Nancy J. Ondra/]
Variegated tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva ‘Kwanso Variegata’, also known as ‘Kwanso Variegated’ or ‘Variegated Kwanso’)
At its best, it’s a beauty, but it does need regular supervision, particularly when the new growth is emerging in spring. Each fan varies in its amount of variegation, and there can be some all-white and all-green ones as well. The white ones eventually die out, but the green ones can quickly overgrow and crowd out the striped fans. To deal with this, I cut out the all- or mostly-green sprouts in spring (cutting down into the soil with a knife to get the roots too, then removing the whole plug). Neglected patches can usually be salvaged, but that means digging out all of the plants and replanting just the variegated fans: a much bigger project.

Variegated tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva 'Kwanso Variegata', also known as 'Kwanso Variegated' or 'Variegated Kwanso') in a garden setting [Nancy J. Ondra/]
As a side note, planting variegated tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva ‘Kwanso Variegata’, also known as ‘Kwanso Variegated’ or ‘Variegated Kwanso’) in shade helps to reduce its overall vigor. You get few of the flowers, but it makes a nice foliage accent there.
Closeup of the yellow-variegated foliage (leaves) of Oriental Limelight mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris 'Janlim') [Nancy J. Ondra/]
I’m sure that some of you remember Oriental Limelight mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris ‘Janlim’). Its feathery, yellow-splashed leaves looked gorgeous in spring and early summer in pots, and it was practically irresistible for container plantings. Let loose in the ground, though, it could get quite tall and spread aggressively, and it would seed around as well if you didn’t cut it back. I never did get it into the ground in my own garden, thank goodness, but I’m still pulling green mugwort out of another garden where Oriental Limelight was planted nearly a decade ago.
After thinking about all of these crazy weeds for so long, I began contemplating the idea of creating an entire planting only of ornamental weeds. Then I realized that’s not too far from what I actually have in some spots. In fact, a fair number of my plants would probably be considered weedy by one person or another. In a large garden with a small budget, though, it’s almost a necessity to depend on plants that are vigorous enough to fill space by freely self-sowing or spreading without pampering. And gee, that’s pretty much the definition of a weed, isn’t it?

Posted on 19 Comments

19 thoughts on “Gardening with Weeds

  1. What a wonderful surprise—a gift for the waning summer season! I was just thinking of you and hoping that you would return with your mid month garden extravaganza and there it was in my inbox!!
    Last night I listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Remember how she describes the beautiful goldenrod and New England asters?
    She comments on their complementary colors and why they may be found growing together. So good to have you back!

    Good to hear from you! It doesn’t feel much like summer is waning here, does it, despite the date? The goldenrods are starting to color up, though, and the asters too in the next few weeks. I always think of you when I see them together. How interesting about the interview!

  2. A lot of these weeds make me shudder. I do let a poke weed stay here and there. As you say the birds snap up those berries. I will never forget the time I bought a variegated Creeping Charlie plant and put it in a nice big pot as a spiller. It seemed like it was only a couple of weeks and I saw that thing reaching out for the path towards the lawn. I about fainted. I ripped that baby out of there and put it in the trash. I fight the regular creeping charlie as it is. If it wouldn’t just grow over everything and smother what ever stands in its way it would be a great ground cover. Weeds are weeds no matter how you look at them, variegated or not. Many as you say are pretty though. I love teasel and when I found out that it was considered a noxious weed in our area I was disappointed. I love the little critters you can craft from the dried heads and they are so architectural. I tried to get the regular plantain to grow in a path where I couldn’t get grass to grow. Heck it would never grow where I wanted it to. It pops up just where it wishes. Oh well, there are plenty other plants to grow.
    I would love to see you and Duncan strolling down the lane. That would give my neighbors something to talk about. Your neighbors are probably used to such a sight.
    I was just this past week wondering about you Nan. You have been pretty quiet this summer. Is your area one that was/is getting all of that rain? I wondered. Give ole Duncan a pat for me.

    Hi Lisa! Yes, the neighbors are used to see us wandering around after these many years, but we still get a lot of funny looks from passing drivers. It’s been a very busy summer here with writing and photography work, and collecting seeds, and trying to keep Duncan comfortable through the tropical heat and humidity. It was our wettest summer on record and is still miserably hot. I’ll give Dunc a wave for you next time he wants some sprinkler time! Hope all is well in your world too.

  3. Nan,

    Did it ever occur to you what a gift you have to be able to write a post about weeds, with great photos, and to make it interesting? So good to hear from you again!

    Thank you,

    John Drexel

    Hah–thanks so much, John. You’ve been hearing me promise a new post since April; took me long enough to get it done. Stay cool!

  4. Kudos on your most magnificant weedpatch!!! My envy is variegated – decidedlly rare, unusual and most likely difficult to propagate. Sunny-side up Phytolacca is doing spendidly here!

    Ah yes, I remember your fondness for weird weeds, Tiiu! I’m happy to hear that ‘Sunny Side Up’ is thriving for you.

  5. I love this post! I use all of the weeds that I can with the exception of invasives in the thistle category and crown vetch which I loose the battle with every year! A flower is a flower in my book and with 20+ deer to battle I adore a plant that can make it on it’s own. Some of your fancy weed seeds didn’t survive here, lol! I stopped and photographed an empty lot a couple of years back in full lush colorful bloom with chicory, fleabane, queen anne’s lace, thistle, mullein, verbascum, oxe-eyed daisy and red clover. It was magnificent and changed the way I looked at the unloved, lol!

    Yeah, those darn “fancy” weeds can be as miffy as delicate alpines or elegant woodland ephemerals. That weedy lot you found sounds like a memorable sight. It probably had more interest than some fussy flowerbeds. The first photo in my post was from the roadside a few hundred feet from my place. I thought that was a prettier combo than many I have in the garden.

  6. Hi Nan, how lovely to have you back, with a very interestingly colourful post. It has been a very hot summer here in England (hottest on record), which has meant that many flowering plants have gone over far too quickly. I could have done with some of your variegated leaved ‘weeds’ for interest. I garden for wildlife, so if anyone spots a weed in my garden, I say it’s for birds/bees etc, then deal with it once the person has gone lol

    Hi Allan! I like your coping strategy. That’s completely legitimate for many weeds, anyway.

    Here’s hoping we all get some cooler weather soon. I need to get back into the garden and get rid of some real weeds!

  7. An interesting post, Nan! I’d love to have some of those weeds growing in my own garden. The only one I’ve deliberately allowed to spread is white clover and I may live to regret that. It never occurred to me that what I purchased as Anagallis ‘Wildcat Mandarin’ might be the infamous scarlet pimpernel until I read your post but it sure looks like it, yet I’m frankly sad to say it hasn’t become a weed here. What’s a weed seems to depend so much on climate and soil conditions. I brought home Hibiscus trionum once, only to learn that many people regard it as a noxious week. It didn’t behave as such here and, after last year’s paltry winter rain, it seems to have disappeared entirely. Meanwhile, Geranium incanum, commonly sold by local garden centers, is truly a weed in my garden. Although I like both the flower and the foliage, it spreads with such abandon that I pull it the minute I see it and yet the garden is still full of it. Sometimes we have to learn about plants the hard way it seems.

    Hi Kris! Yes, white clover has taken over my “low-mow grass” paths. The grass may not need regular mowing, but the clover sure does. Duncan likes grazing on white clover but it gives him “the slobbers” in summer (that’s really a thing: a gross, drooly thing; horses get it too). The ‘Wildcat Orange’ anagallis is a hybrid; similar to scarlet pimpernel at first glance, but it’s much denser and more free-flowering (just my opinion, based on the one time I tried it). I had the same experience as you with Hibiscus trionum; usually have just a few seedlings each year, and I think it’s very pretty. I don’t have experience with Geranium incanum, but I grew out seed of Geranium yoshinoi ‘Confetti’ once and have been trying to get rid of it for over a decade now.

  8. Love this post. I happen to be one who allows weeds to grow just to see how they will behave. Some get to stay; others are quickly dispatched. When I saw the ornamental clover I did a search and cannot find an online seller; only information about the growers who sell to nurseries. Here in the southeast, we plant clover seed now, at this time of year (Sept to Nov) but I have never purchased clover as a plant. Thanks for making our lives more beautiful and interesting!!

    Hey, Mary! Look for the ornamental clover plants in your local garden centers next spring. I found them in several around here. I wish I had bought some then. Next time I see them, I will try plugging some into my paths. Thanks for checking in today. I hope you and your garden are thriving!

    1. Thank you. Yes, thriving and…now I have chickens!! Two dogs, 3 rabbits (one used to belong to a magician), and 6 Buff Orpington chickens. No llamas yet…You are a true inspiration.

      Nice!!! I’d stick with the chickens, if I were you: they are much easier to manage than alpacas.

  9. I have plenty of wait-and-see plants here, and there are a few weeds I’m partial to as well. The ornamental pokeweeds have defeated me as the ornamental dandelions have you. This was a great post–why don’t you submit it for next year’s GWA Awards?

    Gosh, thank you for saying that, Kathy! I’m not a member of GWA, though.

  10. Alyssum, montbretia, rose campion, four o’clocks . . . . there are just so many!

    Oh yes: so many potentially weedy ornamentals–worthy of a separate post from ornamental weeds!

  11. I very much enjoyed reading your perspective on plants that many gardeners would never consider allowing into their gardens. Years ago, I grew variegated Plantago from seed and had it growing in my shade garden. Gardening friends somewhat mocked me for doing this and to this date, still remind me of my “faux pas”. I actually found the foliage to be quite stunning but ultimately let the plant go when part of the garden was destroyed to build a new home.

    Thank you, Mike. I guess we’ve all been guilty of plant-shaming at one point or another, but then, we all likely grow at least one plant that someone would consider weedy or that is invasive somewhere. (I knew that rugosa rose [Rosa rugosa] was classified as invasive in some places, but I was surprised to see fennel [Foeniculum vulgare], bachelor’s button [Centaurea cyanus], and some other very common garden plants on those lists when I was doing some research for this post.) Maybe I will try the variegated plantain again in your honor!

  12. Very good to hear from you again, Nan. I hope all is well at Hayefield. The seeds of Symphyotrichum ‘Hayefield Variegated’ you sent last year germinated well, about 50% variegated. Those were planted out in Spring and half soon perished in the July heat. A few are still hanging in, putting on good growth now in cooler, wetter weather. We’ll see what comes next Spring. I’m often leery of yellow-variegated plants because, as you said, they can look sickly. But the variegation on these asters is bright and sharply defined, running the length of the leaf–obviously a mutation, not chlorosis. Thanks and best wishes.

    I appreciate you taking the time to share that information, Tom; it is very helpful. It seems to take a few years for the clumps to settle in and the variegation to stabilize. I’ve very pleased with the appearance of my oldest clump now. I hope you find yours as pleasing.

    1. After commenting, I went out back and took inventory: eight plants, all nearly two feet tall, all budding (I’ll remove the buds this year), all in hard sun. Tomorrow is a rainy day so I’ll move three to a position with the same soil but less sun. Yellow-leaved/variegated plants can be touchy about full Sun in Kansas.

      Nice! I don’t know that it’s necessary to disbud them (I just let mine flower even the first year), but it’s up to you, of course. Good luck, Tom!

  13. I too, have relaxed my standards. If it’s pretty, and it grows, not on the hate list, and not crowding something valuable, I tend to let it be, for a while, anyway. Favorites are yellow sweet clover, red clover, flower of an hour, and goldenrod. I find gardening more and more about editing. I always love your blog and photos! Those variants of Queen Anne’s Lace are fascinating!

    So good to hear from you, Amy! I completely agree about the editing aspect. I kind of miss the thrill of starting new gardens, but the subtler aspects of tweaking established plantings are fascinating in their own way. I wish you and your garden a spectacular fall season!

  14. I’m very fond of poke weed, and have never seen the variegated or golden leaf varieties – very beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing your garden!


    Thank *you* for visiting, Ceci!

  15. I had no idea there were so many variegated forms of weeds! The patterned white clovers are a real revelation.

    There are quite a few plants I let self-sow; they’re valuable as filler in the borders and as food for pollinators and beneficial insects. Annual fleabane and Queen Anne’s lace accompany the early and late daylilies. Early on, at tulip time, there’s a small white cress (possibly Pennsylvania cress, but there are several very similar ones), followed by a big open geranium with rosy pink stems. As the Queen Anne’s lace fades in late summer, an airy red spurge puts on size and color; it’s a native annual. If conditions are dry, it stays good-looking for a long time and gives an exciting effect when backlit. This season, with more August and September rain than in recent years, they’re blackening. One yank per plant, and a bed is instantly improved. Going to be a lot of yanking after Florence moves through…

    In most places where scarlet pimpernel comes up here, it’s the color you show. But in one area, the blooms are sky blue. I thought I had something rare and precious until I keyed it out, and learned that there are two color forms. Another “weed” with two color versions is moth mullein. The yellow one is what’s here, but a garden friend has the white & pink form. Both are attractive, take up almost no room, and self-sow only modestly (with easily identifiable basal foliage for weeding purposes).

    I can’t resist leaving one or two big pokeweeds, whose glossy red-purple stems are so handsome in early fall. Only in one spot, though — everywhere else there’s zero tolerance. One year there was a Jimsonweed patch by the vegetable garden; the blooms were gorgeous and the fat, prickly seedpods handsome. I cut them down before the seeds ripened, and they haven’t recurred.

    Finally, there’s common milkweed. It’s here for the monarchs, which finally took advantage of it this season. Some year I’ll plant a few other kinds, and cut back on the weed, but for now am cheerfully putting up with it .

    Hi Nell! It sounds like we’re very similar in how we manage “weeds.” I too am a fan of both moth mulleins, to the point that I don’t even think of them as weeds. I should have included them here! And yes, I too am leaving common milkweed in the garden, even though there’s already plenty of it in the meadow.

  16. Every one of your blogs make me want to return to the East Coast! I agree, a weed is in the eye of the beholder; sometimes they are as beautiful and often more hardy than the favored plants we cultivate. Enjoying your posts.

    Great to hear from you today, Diane! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you and your garden enjoy a beautiful autumn.

  17. All I can say is Nightshade, ugh! I’d never seen it before moving to my new property. It comes up everywhere and is impossible to remove all of the root.

    Sorry to hear that. It’s not one I would ever recommend tolerating as an ornamental.

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