Do you know about thugs? I wrote about them recently, here. Thugs are an informal class of garden plants that too often go out of bounds, with annoying overexuberance. They may start out cute, but through shoots, seeds, or runners, they take over the whole flowerbed before seeking every green pasture in sight. Thugs can create endless hours of weeding and trimming. I told everyone how bad thugs are. Now I'm going to tell you what I like about thugs.
At right - Spiderwort flower. Spiderworts are thugs to some, but they work for me
Thugs will fill up a garden fast, for almost nothing. When I moved to my first house, with its blank-slate yard, I defined a few areas under trees that I wanted to fill with greenery. Thugs, do your thing. I planted variegated Vinca in one corner, and found scraps of Lamium galeobdolon to start for another spot. Of course both plants came to me gratis, due to their thuggish origins. I bet you're not surprised to learn that both are still here, many years later. These plants needed no further help from me to cover the ground, whereas mulch would be an ongoing investment and recurring chore.
Thugs are tough. It's part of their nature. That durability means that you can plant them without fuss, and share them by the boxful. Sure, I have plants that need TLC, but it's relaxing to know that the thugs won't completely croak no matter how much neglect I heap upon them. I'll bet that at least half of the average population would be consider me a more skilled gardener for having lush patches of thugs rather than expanses of mulch or a yard with nothing but lawn grass.
Thugs are quite pretty and interesting! If they didn't have some sort of attractiveness, they'd just be weeds. I was blown away the first time I saw my yellow archangel in bloom. My green vinca makes a dark thick cushion under the sycamore all year, with classic periwinkle blue flowers in spring. Thugs are good at providing a solid mass effect without contant weeding (because, of course, nothing else can compete.)
Thugs (well, many of them) can be tamed in the right circumstance by the right gardener and the right site. My thug taming techniques require knowing what my limits are, and accepting certain rules. For example, I must cut all seeds off garlic chives; it's just a fifteen minute job that I absolutely have to fit in annually within a ten-day window. And so I do. With one yearly quick trim, I turn my thuggish garlic chives into meek "kittens" that have edible foliage and amazing flowers for wasps. Every thug mastery reinforces my confidence to try more of these botanical beasts.
The good old green periwinkle, classic Vinca minor, offers me an example of how site conditions can drastically alter thuggishness. Periwinkle exists in two distinct places in my garden. One is near my mailbox, surrounding and heavily shaded by a huge sycamore. Perwinkle filled the area fast and is bounded by lawn, pavement, and a thick hedge. It doesn't even TRY to go over the boundary.. It's incredibly well behaved. The other location is in a sunny flowerbed. Periwnkle is creeping under the fence from the neighbor. (It's only fair, as my yellow archangel has attacked her garden already, shame on me) THIS periwinkle is insidiously invading my flowerbeds. It's sent surface runners under azalea and across iris. Fearing total takeover, I ripped it out in bunches this spring, and of course, the vine popped off leaving the well rooted base of the plant, and roots at many nodes too. One might say, that it's the site that made the periwinkle a thug, not the plant itself.
I'm not advocating widespread use of known invasives. I consider "certified invasive" and "noxious weed" to be a different category of plant from "thug." I can research questionable plants at many webisites, such as USDA PLANTS, or Invasive.org. (Uh oh- according to USDA PLANTS links, I am in trouble. VInca minor officially crossed the line into invasive for two states, so far.) Bear in mind, garden thugs can be native plants as well. (Aclepias syriaca, I am still talkin' to you!) and native plants can become weeds in agricultural areas. A little homework is a good practice.
Are there thugs I will never try? Absolutely! Horror stories of Aegopodium keep me up at night. Running bamboo would have me running for the hills. I will never attempt these two green monsters. Comments in the PlantFiles here, and conversations in Dave's Garden forums, have scared me straight about certain garden beasts. I'd be especially wary of thugs if my property bordered a delicate woodland or wild meadow. I'd be bored with a thug in a small garden where it is permanent and thus deprives me of any chance for change. My comments today are simply meant to defend those (somewhat) innocent plants who are cursed far and wide for simply doing what they do so well. There may be times when what those thugs do well fits nicely into your own gardening scheme.
Invasive.org, Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, accessed 5-2-2014
USDA PLANTS Database, accessed 5-25-2014