Thugs Welcome Here

Monarch on wild ageratum, Conoclinium (Eupatorium) coelestinum


Yes, you read that right, thugs of the plant world are welcome here. Most of them, anyway. Crabgrass, the only plant I consider a true and utterly worthless weed, alone is excluded from the open trowel wielding arms.

Creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Ajuga reptans and Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’


I was once asked which Heuchera cultivars were the favorites in the Fairegarden. The immediate impulsive answer, my standard operating procedure, was “The ones that will grow here”. I wasn’t being glib or funny, it’s true. Not everything I want to grow here WILL grow here. But there are some things that love it here, like the trio of ground covering thugs in the above photo, creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Ajuga reptans and Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’.
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They are generously holding the soil in place between the concrete steps on the steep slope behind the main house.

Lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina


Stuff that will grow wherever you are, that is what you should plant. It is so simple a concept, it makes so much sense, and yet we are all guilty of wanting what is not happy wherever we happen to be gardening.


After another summer of heat and drought, really, that is our normal Zone 7a Southeast Tennessee summer, it is useless to whine, wring our hands and expect otherwise, it is time to take a census of what has died outright, what looks terrible but is hanging on and what is thriving. Plant more of that last one. Or as is sometimes the case, let it plant itself, like the wild white asters that are no longer pulled as weeds around here. Instead, the unwanted seedlings are dug and planted in the lawn/meadow where they provide wonderful white contrast to the sea of green and purple. They are even encouraged to self sow wantonly in there. Gasp!

August 21, 2009 new 019 (2)
Some of the plants that grow well here are considered thugs in other places. Those gardens of fertile loam, enriched yearly with manure and mulch, with nary a rock or clump of rock-like clay in their midst might prove too inviting to some of the plants that are treasured here. Like the Japanese blood grass, Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubrum’, a stalwart of low colorful foliage in all but the coldest months. Its reputation is of being such an aggressive spreader that is listed as a bad guy even here in Tennessee. That is not the way of it here in my wasteland of rocky scree punctuated with slabs of clay so dense that houses could be built from them. The only spreading that happens with the blood grass is when I dig up a clump and move it to spread the wealth. Shown above with the blood grass are a couple more thugs, rampant self seeders, Garlic chives, Allium tuberosa and purple Perilla frutescens. I wouldn’t be without any of these.


The varying blue and purple shades of spiderwort, Tradescantia virginiana are beautiful to behold. Beware the seedlings of this native, the roots are quite tenacious. When the flowering is over the stems are cut back right to ground level. That is the way they are kept in check, but we wouldn’t want to be without them in the woodland beds.


Nigella damascena, a self sowing annual/biennial that will not be weeded out, is another stout heart that can even grow in the street. At most, we cut down the tall flowering stems that sprout in the middle of the pathways for ease of access. That sky blue is most welcome. There can never be too much blue in a garden.

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There are some plants that deserve the name thug, one being Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’. I hope this is not still being sold at nurseries, but watch out for the black seeded fountain grass, it really will take over. Growing out by the street in the island bed of the semi-circular driveway, it is at least contained, even if it is seeding itself into cracks in the asphalt and growing directly in the street. So is the lamb’s ear and some asters. These are plants that really want to grow!


The list of thuggish plants that are welcome residents of this garden is long. Some began as being viewed as weeds and were pulled, like the wild violets. Those that survive these conditions and thrive without watering, fertilizing or babying are the mainstays. Stay they will, long after the gardener is gone.

Frances

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26 Responses to Thugs Welcome Here

  1. Frances I love your thugs and welcome many to my garden and other thugs as well. They do serve a purpose in my wild garden…color, filler, ground cover, pollen and nectar….love this post

    Hi Donna, thanks for mentioning those very good reasons for having the so called thugs in our gardens. Th pollinators adore many of them and they do fill in the open spaces well, thus reducing weed opportunities!
    Frances

  2. cheryl says:

    Awesome photos Frances. I have a few thugs too, those that do well and want to stay so I let them. I’m amazed at how well the Heucheras are doing here, even keeping their colourful leaves all winter. What a surprise this spring. One I really like after all the ice 🙂

    Thanks Cheryl. I am so glad you are having good luck with the Heucheras. Especially in winter, those colorful leaves, or even the green ones are such a welcome sight.
    Frances

  3. Jeanann says:

    I have adopted the same philosophy on gardening after many years of coveting flowers and plants that don’t like our rocky mountain soil. Gardening is so much more enjoyable and I can always visit those wonderful gardens with the beautiful loam that will grow practically anything (Chanticleer, Longwood and Wave Hill spring to mind).
    Thanks for your inspirational blog. You have a beautiful garden and I learn something every time I visit!

    Hi Jeanann, thank you for visitng and those kind words! We have to learn how to garden where we happen to be living. I cannot afford, nor do I want to dig out all of this crappy soil and replace it with truck loads of good stuff. I can tell by the surrounding countryside that there are things that will grow here with no human interference. I am growing those things that most appeal to me. It makes life so much more simple.
    Frances

  4. It is interesting how we react to different overly ambitious self sowers and/or spreaders. Having a meadow garden like you do seems like a great way of allowing the biblical dictum “be fruitful and multiply” to be expressed.
    I had my own personal rude awakening with the ‘Moudry’ fountain grass after one season of preening with satisfaction over its dramatically dark plumes to the following spring of “Whoa, what the heck….it’s taking over.” Same thing happened with river oats grass. First season I was enchanted and nodded approvingly at its delicately rustling seed heads…how clever of me to include such a charming addition to my garden and then… and then …”NOOOO, I don’t want you reseeding amongst the Crimson Pigmy barbary”.
    Right now I have a mystery plant that is a vigorous reseeder but I’m still at peace with it. It looks and behaves kind of like an Oenothera with the bloom only lasting through the morning but the flower (sort of a vinceaflower shape) is a lovely sky blue. Do you have any idea what this might be?

    Oh dear, Michaele, I am so sorry about Moudry, and know from past gardens about the sea oats, too. Even though the river oats are native, I will not be planting them here. I will have to think about your blue flower. Have you checked any wildflower sites? They sometimes have listings by flower color.
    Frances

  5. georgiafromga1 says:

    A very interesting post, Frances, and gorgeous, seductive photos as always. Perhaps I’ll give in to that castor bean plant that insists on living in the gravel behind my AC condensor no matter how often I chop. 🙂 And I have finally accepted that daphne will not grow in my little patch. I will visit and admire it in your garden and elsewhere. I will hereforth celebrate the survivors.

    Hi Georgia, thanks. It is a good idea to gracefully accept that some plants will just not grow wherever we happen to live. I am lucky with the daphne, so far, but know that it could bite the dust any year now. They say when it finally is gorgeous, it will up and die. The castor bean is beautiful and helps keep the groundhogs away, so they say.
    Frances

  6. Cyndi says:

    Again, thanks Frances for identifing my “Blue Spiderwort”! It is native here along the riverbanks and I got some to plant in my gully which turns into a stream in rainfall. I leave most natives in place and transplant them to to keep the soil or “Clay” in my yard in place. I try to add some topsoil to them for encouragement but they are happy just as they grow along the roadsides too. Your asters are fabulous along with all of your gardens.
    Smiles, Cyndi

    Smiles and thanks to you, Cyndi. The spiderwort is the prettiest shade of blue, and it will reseed well in your moist spot. It even reseeds like crazy in my dry as a bone garden. I am ashamed that those white asters used to be pulled, like lowly weeds. They still come up everywhere, but I have learned to love them.
    Frances

  7. Dee says:

    A lot of those same thugs like Oklahoma thank goodness. So many things which are considered extremely aggressive or invasive in other states are merely good growers here. Love your Japanese blood grass.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks. Thank goodness is right. It is nice to not have to stand on our heads and look cross eyed to be able to grow pretty things. It is sometimes a matter of attitude adjustment.
    Frances

  8. Anne Boykin says:

    Frances, After moving a couple of years ago to a smaller garden, I have to stay aware of the thugs but still want to grow what thrives here. It’s a balance, of sorts. I sure enjoy your garden pictures and your stories of what grows and thrives for you. Thanks for your lovely posts.

    Hi Anne, thanks so much for those kind words. I do appreciate you! Having moved several times myself, I understand the adjustment that must be made for each new situation. There may be one more move in my gardening career, most likely to a smaller garden. I will be more picky there, for sure.
    Frances

  9. Oh, I had never looked closely at the center of a spiderwort flower! What beautiful fluffiness!I agree thugs have their place. They can really beautify areas that you don’t want to tend, at least not much. I am putting a bunch of them along the garden shed.

    Hi Kathy, thanks. The movie star close up glamour shots make even the lowly spiderwort look ravishing. Don’t want to tend, what words of wisdom!
    Frances

  10. Frances,
    Thank you for bringing up the subject of thugs in the garden and for their beautiful photos! My thug is goose neck loose strife. I must dig its roots every year or else the place is over run by it. Do you have it in your garden? I love lamb’s ears, but you are right, you must be willing to hack at it annually or it grows into L*A*M*B*S*E*A*R*S where ever you place it. Most of our long life perennials can become thugs by their 4th year if they are happy where we place them. As they say, “a weed is just a plant in the wrong place.”
    -Shenandoah

    Thanks for visiting, Shenandoah. You must have that rich and wonderful moist loamy soil. I can’t grow the goose neck loose strife, Lysimachia clethroides, our situation is far too dry. You must have to work much harder to keep those thugs at bay! A mixed blessing…
    Frances

  11. I had Moudry in VA. It was reseeding all over. I felt that I should remove it as I saw some of it growing in the ditches along the street for quite a distance. Were they from mine? Maybe not, but leaving it in my garden would end up adding to it.
    Also had lots of Tradescantia, there were too many to keep up with……and it just looked weedy after a while. Thugs have their good points, but we need to be vigilant in keeping track of where they jump.

    Eek, another Moudry story! I am sorry, Janet. I would have have to dig up the entire bed where mine is growing, and am not willing to do that. I do feel badly for any escaped seedlings, but my neighbors just mow, so at least it does not reseed for them, if they have any. I cut the Tradescantia after blooming right to the ground. It still pops up everywhere.
    Frances

  12. How funny, I have always heard of ‘Moudry’ being on the invasive side, but I have not experienced that here in my garden and I have had it for several years. I plant ‘Helen von Stein’ Lamb’s Ear (Big Ear) — it is not aggressive like the little ear. Now, I have had to say good bye to Wood Violets, though. It took about a year, but I believe I have rid my garden of them. Now I grow sweet violet 🙂 All we can do is grow what works 🙂 My tastes have changed some over the year because some extreme weather has weeded out the wimps — survival of the fittest (and thugs).

    Hi Toni, thanks for visiting. I wonder if your Moudry is not really something else, like the sweet little Hameln. I wish that was the one I had gotten! I also have the sterile lamb’s ear and love it, too. I still pull violets that are growing in the middle of other plants, like the blood grass. I cannot beat them, ever. Changing our tastes is the way to go. It makes life more simple.
    Frances

  13. Mark and Gaz says:

    How true! It’s worth embracing the ones that actually do thrive in the garden!

    Thanks for the support, Mark and Gaz!
    Frances

  14. Same here. Although its dry and hot here, no rain in sight. I have the standby flowers that seem to grow in spite of the heat. I am hoping they all survive this year again. The ones that need baby-ing are history. I do water everyday but somethings just can’t stand the heat. Wave Petunias seem to really enjoy being tortured though. Same with Agapanthus. I guess I could just grow a garden full of those.(-: Even my daylilies have had enough of this summer! I am so ready for Fall!

    Hi Cindee, thanks for stopping by. I believe that these weather extremes are the new normal, and plants that can adjust and evolve to those conditions will be what is grown here. I love those waves and agapanthus, how pretty that must be!
    Frances

  15. Kathryn Hall says:

    This is a lovely post and I hope it’s heeded far and wide.

    Hi Kathrynm, thanks so much. I hope so too. It makes gardening easier.
    Frances

  16. Amen! I like to put strong growers in the same bed and let them struggle for dominance. Plants that need coddling annoy me. When I first moved into my house, I started removing wild strawberry and a kind of tallish white violet that was growing wild. After a while I realized both these plants made excellent groundcovers. Why fight them? The only plant I have removed for being too aggressive was calico aster (Aster lateriflorus) – but only if grown in rich soil and full sun. In lean soil and shade it was well behaved.

    Yes to that, let the strong ones fight it out. Often it turns out that they coexist ever so nicely. In my front yard, where there is no grass, only shrubs, trees and groundcovers, the violets, wild strawberries and yellow Acorus that I planted are quite nice. I pull any weeds that are above knee height. I think your calico aster is one of our wild wild ones. It does well in the lawn/meadow and the center island with Moudry.
    Frances

  17. Laurie says:

    Loved your article on THUGS! The former owners of our home had planted violets and monkey grass which both LOVE it here. I brought in sweet autumn clematis, which I got rid of several years ago, but it still comes up all over the place every year. The birds must have gifted me with nut grass which really took off this summer. I always wanted asters, kale and pansies for fall color but the bunnies didn’t see it my way. They ate very high on the hog here for years until four red foxes, a very large hawk, and 2 of the neighbor’s cats took to patrolling my garden. I think I’ll be able to have kale, pansies and asters now.

    Thanks Laurie. I love pansies, kale and asters. Good deal on the critter control!
    Frances

  18. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    It is funny how Thugs in some gardens are hopelessly absent in other gardens. I have tried that blood grass several times without luck. I am hoping that the nigella seed that you gave me will end up running rampant in the flower beds. There is some hope.

    Hi Lisa. I have found the blood grass to be tricky to winter over if it is wet, it needs very good drainage and lots of sun to do its best. That is why it loves the hypertufa trough with the cactus mix potting soil. Good luck with the nigella!
    Frances

  19. gail says:

    Frances, Your trio of thugs is so charming that I might have to rethink my previous opinion about Lysimachia! I have a few more to add to the mix anytime to want them~think River Oats! It’s gorgeous all winter. I’ve been thinning it and yes, using it elsewhere. In fact, it’s going up against the vincas! You’re spot on that gardeners need to stop lamenting what they can’t grow and embrace what they can…Gorgeous photos as always. xoxogail

    Hi Gail, thanks. The goose neck Lysimachia won’t even grow here at all! Too dry, I suppose, or too acid. One person’s thug sometimes won’t even grow in another’s garden. No thanks to the river oats, I have grown them before. One like Moudry is enough!
    xoxoxo
    Frances

  20. MNGarden says:

    There is a great battle going on in my front bed:the Titans of ‘Robustissima’ fall anemone, clustered bellflower, and the white spring anemone are duking it out. Looks like the anemones have it; the bellflower produces leaves, but no bloom to speak of. They are all haphazardly plucked now and then. All the thugs have their season, like any other bloom, so they stay! Thanks for another great post!

    Thanks! I love those plant battles! It is so fun to stand on the sidelines and watch them to see who will come out victorious. Sometimes they make friends and coexist nicely together. I have the Japanese anemone ‘Prinz Heinrich’, or that is what the tag said. It is now everywhere. I pull it where it will block the pathway is all.
    Frances

  21. online flower delivery says:

    Thanks for the post!! Basil and cilantro, we planted a few plants, now it is everywhere! We knew better with the mint and oregano, I wish my Rosemary and sage would grow as well as all of the above…Most gardeners are aware of the problems caused by weeds, but there are garden plants – readily available to buy – that pose just as much of a threat. Gardeners may buy these ‘thug’ plants unaware that, once established, they can run amok.

    With the growing conditions here, on a steeply sloping rocky property, we are looking for thugs! Even mint barely makes it, I have to grow it in a container. The oregano does well, I love the gold leaf ones.
    Frances

  22. commonweeder says:

    Great post, and photos. I also welcome my thugs. I never call them that to their faces, of course,. I praise their strength and determination. Summer phlox! daylilies! Sheffies!

    Thanks Pat. True, we don’t want to insult these hard working plants. The phlox and sheffies seed around, I am so glad of it, too. We just move the babies to blank spots.
    Frances

  23. Carol says:

    Thugs are good, in the right places. I need more thugs in a few places!

  24. Rose says:

    Isn’t it interesting how our attitudes change over the years. I have several thugs in my garden, too, that I just don’t have the heart to pull, especially when they start blooming. After this miserable summer, I am thankful for anything that grows without needing my attention. I think your thugs are quite pretty.

    Thanks Rose. That is the key, maturity gives us wisdom, and difficult weather shows us which plants can manage without us.
    Frances

  25. Grace says:

    I loved reading (and totally agree with) your views on ‘thugs’ in the gardening and your pictures are wonderful. I, too, garden ‘on the slope’ and I find very little can grow here if it doesn’t have a ‘thug nature’ at its core to begin with…I’ve slowly learned to admire this environment in way that I’ve never experienced before in other places and states, and the garden I’m building within it (or upon it…however you want to look at it), will have to follow certain rules or limits set down by the landscape itself. I can change it some, but not much, and the payoff for following the rules, so to speak, is that what will (as you and others point out) grow and do well here is what belongs here, what needs to be here, etc. And I’m chomping at the bit for Spring, too…when all the seeds I’ve collected, begged, and bartered for over the past several months goes in the ground. Nearly all chosen for their flowers, almost all of them fall under/into the category of ‘medicinal/culinary herbs’. I’ve been planning this garden in my head for years and actively building it for a year and half. Seeing and reading about what you are doing is inspiring…thank you!

    Thanks to you, Grace for sharing your own gardening journey. I love how all of life’s experiences can be used as we travel onward with new, or existing gardens. Yours sounds delightful!
    Frances

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