Remaking a Perennial Border

I suspect most naive gardeners (even those with years of experience) think that a perennial bed or border, once made, is a done deal. Plants may come and go, but taking the whole thing apart and reconstituting it is unthinkable — sort of like rebuilding a house. But of course a perennial border is a collection of living things, so it’s bound to change. Over time, the tough and hardy plants muscle out the weak and fussy. Some inevitably become dominant in the picture, while others disappear.

Consider these two views of my back garden:

Back Garden, Fall 2010

Back Garden, Fall 2010

 

Back Garden, September 2015

Back Garden, September 2015

 

The same scene, obviously, but details are different. Some plants have grown bigger or more numerous, while others have declined or disappeared. Superficially, though, one could say it still looks fine, despite the addition of dog-excluding fences in the 2015 scene. But I know it was lusher, fuller and better-maintained five years ago.

I plan to retire from my job next spring. Near the top of my list of post-retirement projects is an overhaul of the garden, yanking it out of its present state of decline. Over the years I have whined about the effect of tree roots on perennial beds and vegetable patch (now the Ex-Veg Patch). I have vacillated between accepting the inevitable (substandard beds and borders in dry, rooty shade) or doing the heroic (and expensive) — tree removal.

Now I wonder if there is a third option — rebuilding the border. I remember reading a description of how English perennial borders (the ne plus ultra of this form of gardening) were taken apart, re-dug, enriched and replanted every few years. This was (still is?) a routine procedure, intended to keep the border at a peak of perfection.

Something like that — which I admit sounds pretty heroic, if less expensive — may be the answer, especially as I’ll have more time but less cash.

So, a plan is needed. What plants to dig up and return to refreshed, de-rooted soil. What plants to dig up and discard. What plants to leave in place because they are too difficult to dig up. And I have to decide just when all this digging is to take place. The usual seasons for planting and dividing perennials are spring and fall. A rough rule is to divide spring bloomers in fall, and summer and fall bloomers in spring. But I think this operation is best done in spring, or even earlier — mid-February to mid-March, which I think of as “pre-spring” here on the fortunate west coast. With some care I’ll be able to extract the plants to be kept with enough soil around the roots that they won’t even know what’s happened.

As for the final configuration of the beds, I’m considering fewer large and medium plants and more low groundcovers, such as variegated periwinkles, which are not as pushy and vigorous as the plain types. I’d like more hostas, but I’ve come to realize they really don’t do well in rooty soil. The only way I can grow them well is in pots. Therefore, a combination of large ferns (Dryopteris species) snuggled up to potted hostas (the ferns concealing the pots), with some white foxgloves in the background, and the stalwart hellebores, of course… Too many large plants already? Well, I’ll work it out.

The best gardens, of course, are those in the gardener’s imagination.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring that this small area near the pond, right now, looks a lot like this picture, also taken in 2010.

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. Underneath the canopies of a thirty yr old sycamore and twenty yr old pear tree I let the garden run to wilderness. (I keep the edge defined but allow anything to grow there.) I did plant a fern, a holly, phlox, viburnum, astilbe and bulbs in spring. The area dies back to nothing in winter when I might turn over the ground around the shrubs and mulch it with all the fallen sycamore leaves.

    In tricky areas like that I tend to look at places out in the wild to see what grows there and try to replicate that. Of course if your tree is a mature yew you’re doomed, but apart from larch and beech, most trees allow a decent understorey to develop. I find ajuga is a groundcover that settles in most places. If your under-tree area is dry could you install a home made ‘leaky pipe’ irrigation system?

    And the turning over of perennial beds is still a big event in the gardens of stately homes close to where I live. Visit them just before they close in late autumn and you’ll find a lot of bare ground where the big beds are being replaced.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My trees are Norway maples, which send out a mat of shallow feeding roots. Some plants can cope with this, and I have let those have their way, but it doesn’t result in that “managed border” look. It could be that’s the way things will have to be near those trees. Your methods sound a lot like mine. I think I’ll try remaking parts of my beds in the grand manner, but realistically can’t apply that to all parts of the garden. Gardening, which is totally rooted (haha) in reality is such a good complement to writing. Physically too — digging and clipping gets one up and away from the desk.

      Liked by 1 person

What do you think? Opinions welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s