spade digging perennial bed

Digging and Renewal

My garden consists of seven or eight beds, inhabited mainly by perennials and bulbs.

Here is a description by Eleanor Perényi (in her book Green Thoughts: a writer in the garden) of what was necessary to maintain the classic English herbaceous border*:

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For a start, it was double-dug to a depth of several feet, then filled with well-rotted manure, ashes, sand, etc., and as if that weren’t enough for a lifetime, it was taken apart every third year, dug over, replenished with huge amounts of fertilizer and fresh soil. At that point, new plants were put in, old ones in need of dividing were broken up and reset, and the whole elaborate complex reassembled.

*A perennial border. Herbaceous plants are those whose top growth dies down in the winter.

If I managed to do even an approximation of this, my perennial beds would no doubt be glorious. Deep digging would remove the mat of feeding roots put out by the Norway maples that shade the beds. All the extra fertilizer would mean those roots would return, but a three year renewal cycle would ensure reasonably root-free soil for the perennials.

When should this operation be carried out? I suspect early autumn would be the best time. Many perennials would be at the end of their blooming seasons, and all spring bulbs would be dormant. There would be enough good weather left for plants to re-establish before winter. But what about those dormant bulbs? I can tell a daffodil bulb from a tulip or crocus, but unless there was a detailed and up to date map of the bed, or excellent labels (both unlikely at my place) it would be impossible to know which varieties they were. So much for any carefully worked out colour schemes.

So am I planning to dig up my beds any time soon? Not on your life.

For one thing, I’m not Superwoman (or Super-Gardener, for that matter). Digging up tree roots–or more likely sawing and chopping them–is brutal work. I’ve done it in small areas when moving or dividing plants. I can’t imagine working over an entire bed. My beds are up to 5 feet by 20. The grand gardens of England had small armies of gardeners to do stuff like this. In this non-grand garden of Canada, there’s just one gardener–me. Yes, there are a lot of spades-for-hire in the form of landscaping and yard maintenance companies, but they seem to fall into two groups: the mow the grass and trim the edges crews, or the ones that install instant gardens around new houses built on lots where old gardens have been stripped away to make room for the new. I’d rather not deal with them.

Another problem is my beds aren’t exclusively herbaceous. Some include shrubs, which would be impossible to dig up and replace. I would have to work around them, which would further complicate matters.

And yet, just reading the paragraph I quoted above, and imagining how the renewed beds would look, and how the plants would burgeon forth and bloom the following spring and summer–that brings on an intense bout of gardener’s guilt.

My practice is to apply an annual mulch of compost enriched with a variety of organic supplements such as alfalfa pellets, aged manure, kelp meal, bone meal, or soy meal, and inorganics like lime and all-purpose fertilizer. When I plant something new, I dig up the immediate area to the depth of the spade (about a foot, maybe 18 inches) and add compost and whatever of the other goodies I happen to have on hand. And of course I cut and remove any tree roots that have invaded the spot since it was last dug. (This is why I know I could never renew a whole bed at once; a 2 x 2 foot area is an all-day project.)

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.
Compost pile and wheelbarrow full of mulching mixture.

The above-quoted Ms. Perényi goes on to endorse this practice in her chapter on perennials, where she offers her thoughts based on experience in her own Connecticut garden.

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Nor is it necessary to double-dig. Ordinary digging in of natural fertilizer at the start, and liberal additions of enriched compost after that, are perfectly adequate.

It’s reassuring when another gardener, especially a noteworthy one, says it’s okay to do things the way one already does them. And gardening should be a life-enriching activity, not ache-inducing, heavy labour.


  1. I cringed at this line: “instant gardens around new houses built on lots where old gardens have been stripped away to make room for the new.” I understand that people have a job to sell a house, but ow, I can feel the land wincing. It just wants to rest now, and heal.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In this superlative suburb of Victoria, BC, developers buy lots with modest 1930s to 1950s bungalows, demolish the house, and raze the lot of just about all trees, shrubs, etc. Then a boxlike modern house is constructed and put on the market. Either the developer or the new owner then have an instant garden installed. I’m sure that’s what will happen to our place and my garden when we “downsize.” It’s sad.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I vote for hugelkultur, just keep piling stuff on top of a hill. Remember to bury tiny treasures for future horti-archeologists to discover. “It’s a miniature sauropod molded from some durable polymer. Whatever the deus is it doing in this decaying garden mound?”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s looking promising and lovely Audrey

    We and our garden have reached an agreement.
    It and the numerous plant lives says ‘Leave us alone. We know what we are doing’
    And we say ‘OK, but all that scraggly grass over there has to come up y’know’
    It’s an arrangement which seems to work. (even if bulbs pop up and flower in the most surprising places)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t follow many blogs these days, since there is only so much time to spend reading blogs and I can’t see the point of following if I don’t plan to do that. If you aren’t personally interested in my ideas about writing or gardening, I wouldn’t expect you to follow my blog either.


  4. I was going to go for a bike ride this morning. The wife announced that she was going to dig out three hydrangeas we have and move a rose bush. I cancelled my bike ride because I knew there was no way she would be able to do it herself. The base of the hydrangeas are quite big and they are very heavy. Several hours later, the hydrangeas were out and gone, the rose bush moved, and our bird of paradise split up and spread to two new places. And my lower back and my hips are still complaining. I don’t recommend it. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The bike ride would have been easier and more enjoyable. The problem is that we never were able to get the hydrangeas to bloom. Whether it was too much sun or not enough, we couldn’t figure it out. Between the three of them, we managed only one bloom each of the last couple of years. So, they’re gone.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. I’m not sure how long ago we planted our three hydrangeas, but the first couple of years they had decent blooms. And then all of a sudden, they just stopped. Same location, same climate, same amount of water. The leaves looked fine, they just didn’t bloom. So … they’re gone.

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            1. I got curious about this. It seems one cause of no bloom is too much nitrogen. So if your plants were close to a well-fed lawn, or if you were generous with high-nitrogen fertilizer around them, that might have been the reason. Another reason is pruning them at the wrong time; the flower buds form late in summer, so if the plants are cut back in the fall or winter, there go the buds.
              Of course, now it doesn’t really matter for you now, but just in case you were wondering…

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Four or five years ago we ripped the lawn out in our front yard, so a well-fed lawn with the accompanying fertilizer was most definitely not the problem. 😉 But pruning them … that’s generally something we did at some point during the winter. Cutting the stalks down close to the ground. But they all grew back during the spring, plenty of leaves and branches. Just no blooms.

                Liked by 1 person

              2. That might have been it, then. Apparently the buds form a year before they actually bloom. So the new spring stalks might have developed little buds in late summer that would have bloomed the following summer.
                My big challenge with my hydrangea is to keep it from wilting before and during its bloom period. And the plant has never gotten big enough to need pruning, probably because it’s growing a couple of yards from a Norway maple.

                Liked by 1 person

          2. It’s distressing when plants die for no apparent reason. Sometimes it’s because of a fungus or virus, but gardeners often blame themselves. And I suppose plants have natural life spans, but because we don’t know what those should be for any given plant, it’s hard to be philosophical. I hope your surviving hydrangea keeps on going!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. The suggestion from the book sounds intense! I do not think I would be keen on doing it either. But your gardening routine seems equally fine, especially because it is doable and enjoyable for you. I hope you have a nice garden and continue to have fun working on it. Also, thank you again for supporting the turtles. It means a lot to the community!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. yes,they do. I tried my hand at growing but had disappointing results.
        However I did design an enclosure on my own accord (without reading up on it or anybody suggesting) that a friend later told me were called “Cold Frame”!
        I even put a wall of cinder blocks in the back for thermal mass and painted them black. I was trying to grow tomatoes and you know they need tons of heat. (I only had sunshine for 1/2 the day)
        My problem is I kept the lid down so no bees could get in and pollinate them.Once I found that out I took a small paintbrush and tried to do in manually. Too late or didn’t do it right?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. We were watching a gardening programme when my daughter was still at home and the presenter said ‘A lot of you will be worrying about your herbaceous borders’ – much hillarity from daughter who said she certainly wasn’t worrying! I have seen some magnificent herbaceous borders at Hampton Court and various historical houses and castles. On a sunny day there is nothing to beat a walled garden with beautiful beds and bees buzzing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, a walled garden of that sort would be wonderful. There are very few of them here in Victoria, even though we’re known as “the city of gardens.” But England is definitely the place for great gardens of that type.

      Liked by 1 person

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