Refugee Plants

Spring approaches, and being an inveterate list-maker, I have lists of things to do in the garden. One of them is called Plants to be Moved.

In my garden, there are two reasons for a plant to be moved. The obvious one is that it’s not doing well in its present spot, usually because of encroaching shade and tree roots. Like an invading army, they make life inhospitable for any plant that can’t put up with their coarse ways. Blue poppies, delphiniums, lilies, even hostas have succumbed in the past, unless I, the gardener, provide another option — moving to a better spot. If I detect signs of decline, such as decreasing size and fewer flowers, I make a note to move the sufferer, usually the following spring — if it survives that long.

Then there’s the just-in-case, or insurance move. The idea here is to move divisions of a valued plant to different spots, in case things go bad with the original one. I have a patch of gentians in the front garden which has done amazingly well, considering that gentians are reputed to be fussy and death-prone. Thinking that their success has been due to an extended run of beginner’s luck, I moved a small section a few years ago. It has slowly increased in size and even bloomed a little last year. This spring I will move another couple of divisions to a spot near the original one where these eye-catching (when in bloom) plants can be better seen, also replacing some weedy things such as violets and California poppies. The trick will be to make sure that the gentians are unmolested until they become established. After that I hope they will spread just as the parent clump has done.

Another type of move is when volunteer seedlings appear in places where I don’t want them, even though they are desirable plants. Mulleins are a good example. I identify spots where single mulleins would be good, and move selected seedlings. Although tap-rooted, mulleins can be successfully transplanted when young. This year there are about a dozen young plants of Verbena bonariensis in the middle of the ex-vegetable patch which I intend to turn into a herb garden. I may leave a few in place, not being as much of a purist about what constitutes a “herb” as was the venerable Henry Beston. But I will move the rest to other spots in the garden where these slender plants are sure to be an asset. I’m actually happy to see all these seedlings, as I had great and unexplained losses of V. bonariensis last winter.

The fate of refugee plants varies. Some do well in their new homes, others, already weak, die soon after the move. Still others survive but fail to thrive, and so are moved yet again. There is a plant of Digitalis ferruginea in one of my front garden beds that has managed to bloom only once — and somewhat stingily at that — in the 5 or 6 years since I acquired it. I have moved it four times, and have reason to hope that its current spot is to its liking.

The hardest part of all these plant moves? Finding the Better Spots in my rooty, shady garden. I will have to start creating them by moving a few of those happy, hearty tough plants that need no coddling at all — to the compost heap.