digging up plants

Plants on the Move

Fall is a time for migrations. OK, plants don’t usually pull up their roots and go south for the winter, but this is an excellent time for gardeners to shift or divide the plants in their gardens. A week and a half ago, just before some scheduled minor surgery, I carried out a couple of projects.

Project #1. Quite a few of my plants have moved at least once since they came to this garden — usually in search of sunnier spots with fewer tree roots competing for water and nutrients. Earlier this year I made a list of Plants That Need To Be Moved. The demise of an old lavender shrub in the sunniest perennial bed was a blessing. I have a replacement, grown from a cutting, but I’ll have to find a different spot for it, because its former location — a space about the size of a bath mat — presented an opportunity to re-home almost the entire list.

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

Wide-open spaces freed up by demise of lavender shrub!

 

Another view of the possibilities.

Another view of the possibilities.

The spot now accommodates two nameless yellow and white late-blooming iris, two purple Siberian iris, one Geranium “Johnson’s Blue,” one blue veronica, one Astrantia major, one Potentilla tonguei, and one small stem of Sedum “Bertram Anderson.”

Transplants settling in to their new space.

Transplants settling in to their new space.

OK, I know I’ve jammed too many plants into this spot. But consider: the irises are skinny and are cuddled up against a tall aster (whose bare legs are visible in the photo) that has attained its full growth for the year. And the other plants are undersized due to having endured poor conditions in their old spots, and will take a while to plump up. At that point, some adjustments will be needed. Those adjustments are an important part of gardening, so I’m just ensuring I’ll have something to do in a year or two. A thought occurred to me the other day: There is no point in having a garden, except to have an arena in which to do the activities that constitute gardening. (I’m speaking here of ornamental gardening, of course; growing food is another matter altogether).

Project #2. Several years ago, I prepared a small bed under a magnolia for a planting of Meconopsis X “Lingholm” (or, at any event, plants grown from seed collected from a known specimen of “Lingholm”).

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

Meconopsis bed, newly dug in April 2012

The blue poppies bloomed well that spring, but since then have done poorly. I decided to dig up the plants, improve the soil and replant.

My estimation of the survival abilities of my Meconopsis plants has greatly increased, after removing 2 cubic feet of loofah-like magnolia feeding roots from the bed and the root balls of every one of the seven surviving blue poppies. I replaced the removed roots with an equal amount of nicely rotted compost. Most of the Meconopsis look better already, and I hope all seven will sprout out and bloom next spring. Transplanting in fall usually means you have to wait until the following spring to see real results.

 

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In the meantime, I’m forbidden to do any real digging, root ball wrestling or lugging buckets full of compost for the next few weeks, so the only thing to do is admire the new plantings, make more lists, and hope.

 

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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