By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Is an invasion coming?

How wrong are those who tell us never to look a gift horse in the mouth — especially if the gift is a plant that it said to be “invasive.”

I do not have a green thumb, but I can tell you about invasive plants.

Several years ago we bought a new home with a big yard, lawn not yet planted. Although I loved flowers, plants of all kinds, I had scant experience growing them. But I knew what I wanted my yard to look like and I didn’t need a landscape designer to tell me.

I wanted a diverse flower garden — one of everything — a beautiful blooming hodgepodge. Surely, that wouldn’t be so difficult. In our vegetable garden at our eastern Oregon ranch, I’d seen how everything my parents planted produced bountiful crops. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to grow flowers, despite lacking experience.

I told my new neighbor about my plans.

“I don’t want to discourage you,” she said, “but have you done any digging yet in your yard?” I hadn’t because we’d been moving.

“Well,” she said, “the soil in our neighborhood is clay, clay, clay. It’s so hard to dig in that your shovel bounces when it hits the soil.”

But then came the good news. “When it warms up this spring,” she said, “I’ll divide some plants and I can give you starts of a lot of things, if you want them.”

I was on my way to have one of every flower and shrub. I asked for a gardening book for my birthday. I’d show that clay soil.

By the time the ground had warmed a bit, several friends had shared plants with me. Judy brought over a cardboard box of plants, and I was happy, happy to get them planted.

“By the way,” she said, as she identified them for me, “this one is a bit invasive.”

“Great,” I said. “Just what I need to fill my yard. I’ll show that clay soil.”

She grinned, and said, “Good luck.”

I soon discovered she was right about the clay. I thought I was strong — but digging in that clay took a muscle man. The vision of my yard as a Butchart Gardens kept me at it. More friends brought offerings. I spent much time planting — and planning my future Yard of the Month.

As a novice gardener, I’d had no experience with invasive plants. But they seemed a good answer for me with all my space — and clay soil. When I saw a plant that was labeled “invasive,” I bought it.

I watered and weeded and fertilized — and that first spring and summer I was proud of my growing and blooming plants. I walked my yard daily and reveled in the sight of growth, greenery, sprouts, blooms.

Homer and I always liked weeping willow trees and when friends offered us a “transplant” about five feet tall, we thanked them profusely for that addition to our yard. I knew weeping willows were a bit invasive and that was just what we needed. We set it out in a corner of our backyard lawn — and the clay soil was no match for it.

Tardily, I consulted my gardening book and learned, as I had already suspected: “All willows have invasive roots...” with this additional caution: “Most willows are subject to aphids and spider mites.”

I was learning about gardening — but not fast enough.

The willow tree took off and seemed to spread out and grow another foot every time I took my eyes off it. It wanted to take over our entire backyard, and when I walked beneath it, sure enough, it rained aphids on me.

I felt as if I’d flunked as a gardener when I asked Homer to take out that tree.

I wanted a living screen to hide an unsightly corner of the side yard — and chose bamboo as the answer, to add an Asian aura to my garden. That bamboo was one determined plant. Again, I consulted my gardening book — too late. It advised that many types of bamboo had “running growth patterns.” Mine didn’t run; it galloped. My starter bamboo plants became a clump, then rivaled a forest. Bamboo shoots came up through the blacktop, tried to steal all the ground from the rhododendrons some 30 feet away.

I dug out my bamboo, but bamboo sprouts came up for years to come.

In the meantime, I bought Scotch broom. I like yellow flowers. I had space still to fill and I knew it was not a slow grower. Indeed, it was not. Within a few years, my Scotch broom and I were having wrestling matches as to whose yard this was. Too late, I again went to my gardening book. It noted that there were “bad news” brooms and that three species had “escaped from landscape in the early 20th century and were taking over portions of low-elevation land in California and the northwest.” Mine, without a doubt, was one of those three escapees.

I dug out my Scotch broom.

A friend asked if I wanted a start of Lamb’s Ears. I like that name — and the plant’s soft thick white-woolly leaves. My gardening book didn’t say it was invasive, although it noted that it made excellent “ground cover.” That it did. Before many seasons had passed, it entirely covered one large bed. I needed a harvesting crew for that resulting growth. I got rid of my Lamb’s Ears.

My next-door neighbor brought over starts of Shasta daisy plants. I loved Shasta daisies for bouquets. “Oh, I’m delighted to get these,” I said.

“You may not want all of these,” she said. “Next year you’ll be overrun with plants galore.”

“Great, great,” I babbled. I couldn’t imagine having too many Shasta daisies.

Within a few years, people were calling my yard, “The Shasta Daisy Farm.”

I had a yen for butterfly bush — and their graceful lilac-like blooms — and someone then fortuitously gave me some. “They’re a bit invasive,” my gifter told me.

“I need invasive stuff,” I said. “I don’t have a green thumb.”

Sunset Magazine warned me about that gift. It noted, “Butterfly bush has become an invasive weed in parts of the northwest and should not be planted there.”

There are rock gardens, herb gardens, rose gardens, old-fashioned gardens and botanical gardens. But I’m the only person I know who has an “invasive garden.”

And I willingly share. If you need starts of such plants, you might keep me in mind.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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