In containers, creeping charlie is not a weed

In containers, creeping charlie is not a weed
My creeping charlie, with sweet potato vine behind it.

“My definition of a weed,” the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Tim Johnson wrote in his Chicago Tribune gardening column, “is a plant that is growing where it is not wanted.”

I had started to compose a post that began the same way: The best definition of a weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it.

Then I had to laugh about the different directions of our next sentences:

Johnson: “That said, there are plants like creeping charlie that would be considered weeds, pretty much no matter where they are growing.”

Me: Those of you who have lawns probably consider creeping charlie a weed. But those who garden in containers as I do may call creeping charlie into duty when nearly everything else has failed.

Yep, this year I planted creeping charlie in the six railing planters where impatiens, wild geraniums, coleus, violets, and sweet alyssum had died in past years.

And why not? With apologies to Johnson, containers are the ideal place for creeping charlie. Where can it go? What it does is fill in and cascade over the sides. It’s pretty and even produces purple flowers in the spring.

“If planted in pots or hanging pots, creeping charlie makes a lovely trailing arrangement,” master gardener Sydney J. Tanner of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, wrote in the Chippewa Herald. Tanner doesn’t even limit creeping charlie to pots, saying it is one of the “alternative ground covers and native plantings [that] adorn those parts of my yard not covered by raised beds and trees.”

An herb in the mint family, creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea) is also known as ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground, and catsfoot (its leaves resemble cat’s paws). Lucky for me, it prefers part shade. It has a nice aroma and can be used in salads and teas. In olden days people used it to treat coughs, nervous headaches, and bruises.

I got creeping charlie from my friend Molly, who lives in New Lenox. When I was visiting her one evening last spring, I told her I was thinking of using creeping charlie in containers if I could figure out where to get it. Though garden shops sell plants that some people consider weeds, like goutweed, I’ve never seen creeping charlie for sale.

“What does it look like?” Molly asked. After hearing the description — scalloped round leaves, trailing, dullish green — she brought me outside with a flashlight and a shovel. Creeping charlie was smothering her lilies of the valley, so she was glad to have me dig it up.

Planted on the left and the right sides of each of the railing planters, creeping charlie hasn’t even been very aggressive. Sweet potato vine has been able to spread out between the clumps of creeping charlie.

This is my fourth year of container gardening on a balcony. I’ve written before about the difficulties of gardening nine stories up in wind and shade for all but 2½ hours a day. My first success didn’t come until last year, when coleus plants that were already sizable at planting survived until brought inside for the winter. Why coleus died indoors is a mystery to me.   

This year I wanted to try sweet potato vine, figuring it must be fast growing and easy, since everywhere you look it’s sprawling out of containers. To grow under and around it, I wanted a low-growing, trailing ground cover in another shade of green. Creeping charlie filled the bill. I didn’t care about having lots of colorful flowers. All-green plantings look serene to me, and the lime green of the sweet potato vine contrasts nicely with the darker green of the creeping charlie.

The sweet potato vines and creeping charlie will come inside for the winter in the hope that they’ll live to be replanted outdoors next year. Maybe the creeping charlie will bloom next spring, but I won’t mind if it doesn’t. It’s already proved itself at its main job, filling its allotted space and spilling over the sides of the planters. I recommend it to anyone who is having trouble growing anything in a container — as long as you can find a source. Look around for places where creeping charlie is growing and probably isn’t wanted. Maybe you’d be allowed to carry some away. There’s a sidewalk planting in front of a Columbia College building on Wabash where creeping charlie is taking over, and I’d bet it wasn’t intentionally planted there. If my creeping charlie doesn’t survive the winter indoors, that’s where I’ll look first to get a new supply.



“If my wife were the counselor to the CEO of Pepsi and I had a problem with her boss, I would simply drink my Coke and keep my mouth shut. If the president were simply mediocre or even bad, I’d have nothing to say. This is much different.”

— George Conway, Kellyanne Conway’s husband


Note: The next post will be later than usual due to a vacation.

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