GARDEN TGARDEN THERAPY: A Plug for the Thug – September, 2015

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

My esteemed colleague and friend, Don Statham, recently published a blogpost and corresponding article in Kaatskill Life about “Thugs in the Garden”. He is a great writer and thinker on all things garden and landscape design; check out his Rooting for Ideas blog at It is really worth the read and very entertaining. I am in complete accord with him on every word of this post. The basic premise of the article is that we sometimes put a plant in our garden naively or knowingly, even against warnings, because of our strong attraction to the plant. As time passes, we realize that it really is a thug, and then we spend cherished gardening time trying to control it or eradicate it. How true it is!

Thugs are very seductive. They are often showy, easy to grow and very available. Beware of gardeners bearing gifts at plant swaps! Also, thugs are sneaky. Sometimes a thug in one garden is a kitten in another, and they are definitely like weeds in that one gardener’s thug is another’s joy. For instance, one of my most-hated invaders is the Johnson blue geranium. I have been trying to get rid of it for years as it reseeds in the middle of another plant and develops an awesome root system before I notice it peeking out from its host plant. I have never heard another gardener complain about this plant; go figure. On the other hand I don’t really mind the black-eyed Susan “Goldsturm” which my dear friend Ellen finally banished from her garden after years of cursing it.

Some sneaky thugs lie in wait, luring you into complacency, thinking everything is OK, while they build their strength and plan their attack. Most plants take a few years to really get going, so you might think you are safe. Probably in the first few years your obedient plant, black-eyed Susans, lady’s mantle and even gooseneck loosestrife give you a false sense of security. Some plants are extra conniving. Case in point, I have a trumpet vine that has been progressing happily for almost 10 years now without suckering. I love my trumpet vine as it creates a beautiful green backdrop for the porch swing and provides nice orange highlights for much of the summer. I think maybe I got lucky and mine will not start popping up 20 feet away in every direction all over my garden (knocking on wood). I know people who say it is taking over their life! Maybe I paid the trumpet vine devil off in Johnson blues.

I could go on (and on) with stories about thugs wreaking havoc, but the point of this musing is to give them a little plug. Thugs can be very useful and can even do good in the world. They are very effective in mass plantings where you want to cover a lot of ground, as in “groundcover”. These mass plantings can add a beautiful architectural element to a landscape, creating pretty lines in broad sweeps that can be easily maintained. Many thugs form such a dense mat that they really do block the weeds and they don’t require mowing. My favorite plant for this purpose is the Geranium macrorrhizum or big root geranium. I don’t actually think of it as a thug, but I have heard many say that “it really takes over.” It works great as a groundcover in the shade but can take sun as well, although it does wilt some. Recently I wanted to create a big circle around a newly planted tree that was going to be in full sun all day. I decided that I should use something other than the big roots, so I used gooseneck loosestrife, Lysimachia clethorides. As long as it doesn’t have an access point to your other garden areas it is fine and can be managed with a mower or weed whacker around the edges of the area. Gooseneck loosestrife actually has a nice spring color, summer flower and fall color when it is not strangling your other perennials.

Another good use for a thug is in a difficult spot where nothing else will grow. I consider Archangel deadnettle, Lamiastrum galeobdolon Variegatum, to be a pretty dangerous plant to introduce into the garden. However, sometimes it is just the thing for a shady dry spot under a tree or the deep eaves of a building. I have even used it under the deep shade of Norway spruce.

Finally, thugs can be pretty safe and effective in habitats where they struggle and don’t thrive. The black-eyed Susan “Goldsturm” re-seeds rampantly, gets huge and creates pretty dense mats in nice garden soil. On a clay bank it can’t do that, and just looks like a wildflower. This can be witnessed along Route 30 on the south side of the Pepacton along with the leggy mountain laurel struggling there. I have only planted Petasites japonicas, butterbur, a couple of times, but it was planted under a tree that soaks up the moisture. They thrive in wetter areas. In the dry spot it can add a nice big-leafed textures without doing damage.

Respect the thug and proceed with caution!~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.