Garden

asters, nerines, senecio 'Sunshine', fall

Poppy Pagodas And Autumn In The Garden

Now that the seven remaining blue poppy plants have been rescued from maple and magnolia roots and given deluxe accommodations in a couple of half-barrels, I thought they should also have protection from excessive winter rain.

In their native environments (Tibet and the Himalayas), rainfall distribution is exactly the reverse of Victoria’s — wet during the monsoon season (May through October) and pretty much dry from November through March. Here, the dormant poppy plants are bathed in rains during the winter months, which often results in crown rot and death, even in my sandy soil.

The solution? Poppy “pagodas” — charming little roofs on stilts that fit over the half-barrels.

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They’ll remain in place until next spring, making sure the soil around the precious poppy roots is damp, rather than sopping. If it seems to be drying out, I’ll dribble in a bit of water.IMG_2480

After all this fussing to accommodate them, I have great expectations of these plants. We all know where that can go, however, so I’ve reserved a bit of cynicism, just in case.

Otherwise, the garden is going through its usual autumn process. I wouldn’t call it “decline,” because I love fall, and because from certain angles, the garden looks better than it did a few weeks ago.

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Aster “Pink Cloud” living up to its name.

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Pink nerines finally blooming well.

I’ve hung the hummingbird feeder out again. Back in May it became obvious that the hummingbirds were more interested in flower nectar than the sugar water in the feeder (and why not?), so I removed it for the summer. Now they are visiting again, and this morning a crowd of bushtits showed up. They don’t have the right sort of beaks to use the feeder, but seem to get something from it, so good for them. Dark-eyed juncos are back in town after spending the summer elsewhere, and I’ve heard robins calling in the evenings, a particularly plaintive song that seems right for this time of year.

It’s the first full moon of autumn tonight — not to be missed!

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Image from Pixabay

 

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dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

Repurposed: A New Role For The Barrel

For years, I had a funky wooden rain barrel, as well as a couple of plastic garbage cans that had been modified into water storage devices. The wooden one was more ornamental than practical, but was a fixture of the place.

After new eavestroughs and downspouts were installed, the wooden barrel no longer had a function as a “rain barrel.” For several months it sat there unused, until I decided, coincidentally, to try growing blue poppies (Meconopsis) in containers once more. The soil in my garden is sandy and too full of tree roots for these fussy (but gorgeous) plants. It’s hard to maintain sufficient nutrient levels without also encouraging tree root proliferation.

Several years ago, I tried growing blue poppies in 1 and 2 gallon plastic pots, but that attempt resulted in crown rot and failure. So as a last ditch effort, I decided to try really big containers that will have better internal drainage than the plastic pots. Enter the barrel, in the form of two half-barrels.

After sawing around the middle, each half was furnished with drainage holes.

Half barrel drainage holes

I positioned the half-barrels in semi-shady spots in the garden, setting them on chunks of concrete and making sure they were more or less level.

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Then I mixed up what I hope is a suitable growing medium — compost, sand, manure, peat moss, kelp meal, slow-release fertilizer, some actual soil (also known as “dirt”), and a bit of commercial container mix as insurance. The compost and soil are in the bottom parts of the half-barrels, with the other stuff on top. This is to avoid the prolific crop of volunteer seedlings that always sprouts from my compost.

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Once the soil was in place, I dug up the six surviving Meconopsis plants and removed astonishing mats of maple feeding roots from each root ball. No wonder there have been almost no blooms the last couple of years! The only roots in their new barrel quarters will be their own. I hope they appreciate this by settling in and putting forth some new leaves before going into dormancy.

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The trick will be overwintering the dormant plants. In their native environment, precipitation is lowest in winter, highest in summer — the opposite of what we have here. Watering containers in summer is easy, but keeping excess rain out of the half-barrels in winter will probably involve some sort of charming roof-like structures that will allow air circulation. Covering with (ugly) plastic sheets, I suspect, would ensure permanent dormancy, otherwise known as death.

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The pea-gravel mulch is intended to protect the crowns from excessive wetness and fungal evils, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s a good idea. That’s the thing about gardening — you do something that seems like a great idea, but as soon as it’s done, doubts creep in. Trouble is, you have to wait for months to see how things work out.

I’m hoping the barrel method will work. It has been done, in a garden just across Juan de Fuca Strait.

setting sun through wildfire smoke, maple tree

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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Friends or Enemies? No, Just Plants.

“Peach-Leaf Bellflower, Garden Enemy #2” is one of my most-viewed posts. It was written in a fit of pique after I stabbed a hyacinth bulb while engaged in a heavy session of digging up peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) that had spread by runnng roots. I have since relented in my harsh judgement of that plant.

Partly it’s because I’ve decided there are plants even more apt to spread and harder to control. To wit: Oregon grape, snowberry, periwinkle (both Vinca major and V. minor), achillea, bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), and certain daylilies. I’ve fought more desperate battles with these than I ever waged against the bellflower (which is rather attractive just now, in its first flush of bloom).

It’s dumb of gardeners to blame plants for being themselves, bestowing upon them unkind epithets such as “thug” or “garden enemy.” (Not that the plants give a damn). I’m the one who decided to plant peach-leaved bellflower, Oregon grape, and snowberry in my garden, thinking them good choices because they are drought-tolerant, or native species, or both. Thing is, they succeed in our local conditions precisely because of their deep-rooting, runner-producing tendencies.

A recent reading of Noel Kingsbury’s excellent book, Garden Flora, gave me a new perspective on this — grouping or classifying plants by ecological habit, as well as by habitat or anatomy.

In looking at the longevity and persistence of plants, some are called “clonal” and others “non-clonal.” The first group includes those that spread by rhizomes, roots or stolons, and others that stay in one place but increase in size. Non-clonal plants are generally short-lived, but produce lots of seeds to ensure persistence. Both types are represented in my garden. The spreaders and seeders are the ones that give me grief, and on the whole, the seeders are easier to deal with. Deadheading is a lot easier than digging up Mahonia roots, let me tell you.

Kingsbury says the non-clonal plants tend to be pioneers, moving into an area and flourishing briefly, only to be supplanted by clonal competitors, whose roots, whether running or expanding in place, allow them to dominate their environment.

Learning about the science of things is a good antidote to the human tendency to personify. Plants don’t run or produce zillions of seeds just to bug gardeners, but as a survival technique. If gardeners were aware of these habits before they introduced plants to their precious patches of earth, much physical exertion and gnashing of teeth could be avoided, or at least minimized.

It would be helpful if writers of advice for gardeners included this aspect of plant performance in their writings. I’m sure if I had read something like “this is a tough, drought-resisting native plant, but gardeners should be aware that it spreads vigorously in conditions that meet its needs,” I would have avoided some plants, and situated others more carefully.

Beguiled by fervid descriptions of a plant’s flower colour, reliability, or the fact that it’s a native adapted to local conditions, I have rushed out, bought one or more, and installed them in my small patch of land. They took hold and flourished. Fast-forward a few years to see me whine and swear at colonizing shoots metres away from the original plant, often in the middle of some pampered darling that’s trying to make up its mind as to whether life is worth living. By this time, of course, the original plant has grown large enough that removing it would be a major project of the back-breaking variety.

The gardener mutters and swears. The clonal plant clones. The planet rotates. The gardener digs, chops, mutters, and swears.

Innocents, take note!

June 11, 2016

The Hori-hori Knife — essential weapon for battling suckers.

white foxglove, Digitalis purpurea

Foxglove Falsehood

I know I read somewhere that the flower colour of a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) plant can be predicted by the colour of the leaf stems (petioles). Foxgloves are biennials; they flower in their second year of life, and then they die. Their normal flower colour is a reddish purple. It’s fairly attractive, but not nearly as elegant as the white form. Fussy gardeners who prefer the white form would therefore want to know which of a batch of seedlings would be likely to produce white flowers the following year.

If the leaf stem shows purple, I understood, the flowers will be purple. Plants with pale green leaf stems are more likely to produce white flowers. Going by this, I picked out a number of seedlings several years ago and planted them around the place. A few of them did turn out to have white flowers, but not all. Some produced blooms of a pale, washed-out pink with nothing to recommend it, and some were just the ordinary purple shade.

After this experience, I didn’t bother with systematic seedling selection. I simply let a few plants produce seed, and left a few of the resulting seedlings where they came up, in spots where a foxglove would be an asset to the scene.

Right now, I have two foxgloves with white flowers. The biggest and most impressive one has dark purple leaf stems. So does the smaller one.

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Clearly, the idea that leaf stem colour predicts flower colour is dead wrong.

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Just for fun, I checked the leaf stems of a rather impressive purple foxglove also in bloom now.

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Its leaf stems have only a slight tinge of purple. If I had looked at them before the plant bloomed, I would very likely have predicted pale or maybe even white flowers.

So much for that notion. Consulting that fount of info, Wikipedia, I find this in the article on Digitalis purpurea:

The colours of the petals of the Digitalis purpurea are known to be determined by at least three genes that interact with each other.[6]

The M gene determined the production of a purple pigment, a type of antocianin. The m gene does not produce this pigment. The D gene is an enhances of the M gene, and leads it to produce a big amount of the pigment. The d gene does not enhance the M gene, and only a small amount of pigment is produced. Lastly, the W gene makes the pigment be deposited only in some spots, while the w gene allows the pigment to be spread all over the flower.

This combination leads to four phenotypes:

  • M/_; W/_; _/_ = a white flower with purple spots;
  • m/m; _/_; _/_ = an albino flower with yellow spots;
  • M/_; w/w; d/d = a light purple flower;
  • M/_; w/w; D/_ = a dark purple flower.

If I could understand the above and make practical use of it, I might be able to predict flower colour in foxglove seedlings. I’d probably get more white flowered plants from my self-sown foxgloves if I pulled up any purple types before they reached full bloom, so as to keep their pollen out of circulation. But I am constitutionally incapable of pulling up (i.e., killing) any plant that is vigorously growing and about to bloom. I even have trouble dispatching certain weeds. So I’m not likely to go around “roguing out” any purple flowered plants if they look good.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the blooms I have, and let the white one (which, according to the above, is the white with purple spots phenotype) produce seed. Foxgloves seed like crazy. I’ll harvest a small quantity of seed and sprinkle it around the garden, and in 2019 I’ll see the results.

Update: another, rather small, foxglove plant has since bloomed with white flowers. These are pure white, and without spots of any kind. And the leaf stems are very pale green, without a trace of purple. So now I’m wondering if the leaf stem colour is somehow linked to the colour of the spots within the flower. Observing stuff like this makes gardening — even with common plants — interesting.

scarlet amaryllis

Amaryllis

I’ve had a couple of amaryllis bulbs languishing in pots in a south-facing basement window for years. A purchased bulb bloomed and then split into smaller bulbs, which I dutifully potted up. Most of the time they do nothing but grow leaves now and then, but several weeks ago, to my surprise, I noticed one of them was developing a bud. Great excitement! I brought the plant out of exile to a prime spot on the table in an east-facing bay window.

Two big red flowers opened in due course, and lasted for a full two weeks.

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I’m pretty sure this isn’t the usual time for these plants to bloom. I associate them with late winter, but maybe that’s because they are sold around Christmas time, and are often given as gifts. I recall occasions when mine (probably different manifestations of this same plant) bloomed in September. I reasoned that they may somehow have known it was spring in the southern hemisphere, since their place of origin is South Africa.

Out of season or not, I enjoyed the company of these gaudy and impressive flowers. Now that they have withered, the plant’s new leaves look rather elegant, so I’ll delay its return to the basement.

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The trick now is to manage the plant so it will repeat the performance some day. I won’t even try to guess when that might be.

garden book

A Noteworthy New Garden Book

 

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury.

Next to gardening, reading about gardening is a unique pleasure. But finding truly readable garden books is not always easy. Reference-type books, with how-to-do-it instructions, or descriptions of plants and their preferred growing conditions, may be useful, but are not entertaining to read. These are books I consult standing up, with garden gloves stuffed in my pocket and a project of some sort half-done outside.

Readable garden books are to be savoured in winter, or when it’s too dark to do real gardening. They are written by dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners who are also good writers. Like the best fiction books, they become reliable friends.

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury lives up to its subtitle: “the natural and cultural history of the plants in your garden.” It presents a lot of information in its 368 pages. It is arranged by genus, in alphabetical order, but each section is an essay, covering genetics, evolution, distribution, botanical characteristics, and history in cultivation. This last includes discovery, medicinal and religious uses, breeding, cultivars and fashions. Kingsbury’s informal writing style delivers facts in a congenial, readable manner. It was a revelation to me that the genus name Alchemilla derives from Arabic for “alchemy,” because of the way water droplets cupped in the leaves shine like mercury. Apparently, medieval alchemists believed this water to be especially pure and gathered it for their procedures.

The book’s extensive introduction includes valuable information about plant classification, evolution, ecology, habits and habitats, as well as a history of plant cultivation from ancient and early historical times (dubbed “before glass”) to the modern era (“after glass”). Another surprise for me was how many varieties created by plant breeders have vanished from cultivation over the years, after falling out of fashion, or because growing them became too troublesome or costly. Perhaps we are in a sort of “post glass” era?

Illustrations are drawn largely from botanical art and historical nursery catalogues, which are interesting and/or charming, but the pictures I appreciated most are those of plants in their natural habitats — hostas and daylilies growing wild in Japan, delphiniums in Kyrgyzstan, colchicums in Turkey, lupins in Washington State.

This is a fairly large volume, almost a coffee-table book, and quite heavy. It doesn’t pass the bath-bed-bus-beach test, but the depth and richness of its contents make it a book I will be content to sit down at a table and read, now and for years to come.

garage roof, shingles, ladder, apple tree in bloom

Roofing

The title of the post just before this one is “Rooting,” so it’s a piece of luck that this one is appropriately titled “Roofing.” Sometimes things work out perfectly.

After twenty years, the shingles on our roof looked a bit eroded, so we arranged to have them removed and replaced. The job took about a week, and the company we hired did a fine job. So did the fellow who came afterward to install new eavestroughs and downspouts. No complaints there.

But…

A few things for gardeners to think about before workers arrive:

  1. Not everyone cares about plants the way you do. That includes spouses.
  2. In order to get the job done promptly, heavy equipment and men in size 12 steel-toed boots may be stomping on your green babies that have just pushed their tender shoots above the ground.
  3. Plants growing close to a work zone will be perceived as obstacles.

After the house was roofed and downspouted, the professionals departed, and work began on re-shingling the garage. My husband was keen on doing that job himself. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but was dragooned to assist nevertheless. So I’ve spent a good portion of the past week lugging shingles up ladders and moving said ladders from one spot to another, and then back again. A certain amount of shouting and muttering has occurred, especially following the radical pruning of a winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera X purpusii or possibly Lonicera fragrantissima) that was declared an obstacle. The plant has shown a fair bit of vigor after previous butcherings prunings, as well as last winter’s icy winds, so I hope it will recover.

January 27, 2014

Winter Honeysuckle

In the meantime, the garden carried on with spring.

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Tulipa batalinii and forget-me-nots

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Unidentified double tulip

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Primula and Chinese egg jar

Indoors, I continue to beat out the first draft of my work-in-progress, a novel to follow the Herbert West Series. Every month since January, I have committed to my critique group to send out another 6,000 words. That self-imposed deadline has worked so far; by mid-May I expect to hit — or at least get within hailing distance of — the 30,000 word mark. I’m finding this a tough job, tougher than writing my other novels, but so far I’ve managed to keep at it. Sort of like getting the roof done, shingle by shingle.

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The manuscript

 

Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

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This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.