Sure, these species may have lovely flowers or intriguing foliage, but they also have less desirable attributes that will have you regretting the day you tucked them in the ground.

By Megan Hughes
August 25, 2020
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In my garden, I have a few of what I call perennial troublemakers. They're the ones that turned out to have a dark side lurking beyond the promises of prolific summer blooms or the ability to tolerate the harshest heat and drought without missing a beat. In truth, their nonstop flowers result in tons of seeds that go everywhere, or their toughness is actually thanks to rampant growth that threatens to smother every living thing in a 10-foot radius. It feels like an endless struggle to keep them contained, leaving me wondering why I ever planted them in the first place. Save yourself from all these frustrations by banning these problematic perennials from your garden. Plus, I've got suggestions for much better-behaved look-alikes you can grow instead.

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lily of the valley convallaria majalis
Credit: Dean Schoeppner

Lily-of-the-Valley

Yeah, I know, this one is a classic garden plant beloved for its perfume-rich, white bell-like flowers in early spring and ability to thrive in dry shade where not much else will grow. But I've come to really dislike lily-of-the-valley because, a year or two after planting, it starts to spread like wild, choking out nearby plants. Once it's established, reining in this aggressive spreader requires relentless vigilance.

Plant This Instead: Though its flowers aren't fragrant, ajuga also can grow in shady spots similar to lily-of-the-valley, but won't take over the garden.

perennial bachelor's button in garden
Credit: Kritsada Panichgul

Perennial Bachelor's Button

A catalog description focused on a parade of spring and summer flowers and easy care can beguile those who have never grown perennial bachelor’s button (Centauria spp). But ask anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of growing this plant and you’ll get an earful about its hyper-reseeding nature. The first year you’ll have one clump of it and the next year your garden is inundated with 15 clumps. Beware, perennial bachelor’s button also goes by names like mountain bluet, corn flower, and basket flower, but all are bad news.

Plant This Instead: For early summer color, plant well-behaved, pollinator favorite penstemon instead of perennial bachelor’s button.

chameleon plant houttuynia cordata
Credit: Dean Schoeppner

Chameleon Plant

Heart-shape leaves decorated with splashes of white, green, pink, and yellow easily dazzle those unfamiliar with chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'). But that admiration will quickly turn to dismay when this vigorous perennial begins spreading everywhere. Plus, once it's sunk its tenacious roots into your garden, it's nearly impossible to get rid of. Even herbicides don't slow it down much so please don't fall for its cute, colorful leaves if you see it in the garden center.

Plant This Instead: There are many other well-behaved groundcover plants like creeping thyme, oregano, or barrenwort that won't give you a decade-long headache like chameleon plant will.

alyssum saxatile basket of gold
Credit: Denny Schrock

Yellow Alyssum

Blooming in early spring when we are most craving color after a long, drab winter, yellow alyssum, also called basket-of-gold, is a welcome sight in the garden. But once you get near enough to detect the flowers' fragrance, or perhaps more accurately their odor, you may end up backing away quickly. If you don't find the stinky blooms as offputting as I do, this plant actually is a tidy, drought-tolerant groundcover.

Plant This Instead: If you want early color with a more pleasing scent, opt for the delightful perfume of miniature daffodils.

tuscan sun false sunflower bloom detail
Credit: Jacob Fox

False Sunflower

Don’t be fooled by false sunflower. Its garden behavior is nothing like true members of the sunflower family. False sunflower spreads aggressively by underground roots to form large colonies of plants. It will grow right over and through nearby perennials and shrubs, making it especially tough to evict without harming the plants it has engulfed.

Plant This Instead: Consider growing perennial sunflower, such as ‘Maximillian,’ for similar pollinator-friendly flowers on plants that aren't bent on taking over the world.

purple loosestrife in garden
Credit: Kim Cornelison

Purple Loosestrife

This perennial has a rap sheet. It's listed as a noxious weed in many states because it overtakes wetlands and crowds out native species. Purple loosestrife is quickly recognizable, thanks to its upright purple flower spikes that bloom from midsummer through fall. Although it's banned from sale in many states, it still makes its way into gardens. Uninformed friends sometimes offer a clump or two from their garden. This is one gift to refuse. And then kindly fill in your friend on its invasive nature.

Plant This Instead: For a long-lasting punch of purple in the garden, plant native purple coneflower or blazing star instead of purple loosestrife.

Comments (5)

Anonymous
September 12, 2020
Here's a crazy thought: list the actual botanical name of each plant you discuss. Only done here with chameleon, for some reason That would help avoid confusion among plants with similar name or multiple names.
Anonymous
September 5, 2020
I enjoy Lily-of-the-Valley in containers. I would add Shasta Daisy to your list above. They have taken over every area of my garden and lawn. Even herbicides won’t control them! I wouldn’t mind, except that they smother out my other perennials.
Anonymous
August 30, 2020
I would add black-eyed Susans to this list. They multiple like crazy, crowding out annuals. I've thinned the flowers but they come back with a vengeance.
Anonymous
August 26, 2020
The gardening world has a long history of controlling nature, an ignorance about numerous plant behaviours and a lack of interest in how natural plant communities function, look beautiful and thrive. This approach is typified in the mainstream convention of selecting plants that behave like static decorative objects with little or no ability to spread, changing their position, size, etc. This article follows this convention by identifying and eliminating non-static plants that have abilities to consistently reproduce themselves. People should instead understand and utilize these behaviours as they can add powerful and useful benefits such as spontaneity and regenerative abilities. These dynamics can move the planting towards being a plant community with significantly more ecological benefits. Thankfully there has been a long movement of renowned garden and planting designers that have challenged the unnecessarily heavy handed and sometimes authoritarian relationship to plants. Much innovation in function and form has been generated and shown to work, as well as excite, visitors in new and more immersive ways. Some of these individuals include William Robinson (1836-1935), Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), Christopher Lloyd (1921–2006) and Beth Chatto (1923-2018) to today’s well known Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury and Nigel Dunett. The latter designers and authors have produced numerous gardens and plantings all over the world on a variety of scales both in private and public settings with a number having gained world-wide attention such as the High Line in Manhattan to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The current zeitgeist in planting and garden design embraces a different approach to plants and in many situations these plantings will incorporate the plants listed in this article as well as many others possessing similar characteristics. The key to using these plants is an understanding of how they behave in the wild. If designed correctly, plantings can be orchestrated into a dynamic, low input/high output, resilient and beautiful vegetation where individual plants touch and support each other filling a variety of niches. It is also important to understand how plants behave differently in various climates, soil types and what other plants they are interacting with. If you want to learn more about naturalistic planting design, a different relationship to nature and a change of perspective, there are many excellent books: Planting: A New Perspective By Noel Kingsburry and Piet Oudolf Naturalistic Planting Design: The Essential Guide By Nigel Dunnett Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes By Claudia West and Thomas Rainer Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants By Jonas Reid, Christian Kreß and Jürgen Becker Dream Plants for the Natural Garden By Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf
Anonymous
August 26, 2020
The gardening world has a long history of controlling nature, an ignorance about numerous plant behaviours and a lack of interest in how natural plant communities function, look beautiful and thrive. This approach is typified in the mainstream convention of selecting plants that behave like static decorative objects with little or no ability to spread, changing their position, size, etc. This article follows this convention by identifying and eliminating non-static plants that have abilities to consistently reproduce themselves. People should instead understand and utilize these behaviours as they can add powerful and useful benefits such as spontaneity and regenerative abilities. These dynamics can move the planting towards being a plant community with significantly more ecological benefits. Thankfully there has been a long movement of renowned garden and planting designers that have challenged the unnecessarily heavy handed and sometimes authoritarian relationship to plants. Much innovation in function and form has been generated and shown to work, as well as excite, visitors in new and more immersive ways. Some of these individuals include William Robinson (1836-1935), Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), Christopher Lloyd (1921–2006) and Beth Chatto (1923-2018) to today’s well known Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury and Nigel Dunett. The latter designers and authors have produced numerous gardens and plantings all over the world on a variety of scales both in private and public settings with a number having gained world-wide attention such as the High Line in Manhattan to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The current zeitgeist in planting and garden design embraces a different approach to plants and in many situations these plantings will incorporate the plants listed in this article as well as many others possessing similar characteristics. The key to using these plants is an understanding of how they behave in the wild. If designed correctly, plantings can be orchestrated into a dynamic, low input/high output, resilient and beautiful vegetation where individual plants touch and support each other filling a variety of niches. It is also important to understand how plants behave differently in various climates, soil types and what other plants they are interacting with. If you want to learn more about naturalistic planting design, a different relationship to nature and a change of perspective, there are many excellent books: Planting: A New Perspective By Noel Kingsburry and Piet Oudolf Naturalistic Planting Design: The Essential Guide By Nigel Dunnett Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes By Claudia West and Thomas Rainer Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants By Jonas Reid, Christian Kreß and Jürgen Becker Dream Plants for the Natural Garden By Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf