hori-hori knife

Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.


King Tut, Hori-Hori and Fragrant Cloud

After an epic battle with tree roots — a whole network, from 1/4 to 3/4 inch diameter, with sponge-like wads of feeding roots — I prepared a spot for a plant new to the garden:  papyrus! Specifically, Cyperus papyrus “King Tut.” It now resides in a small boggy area next to the pond. Although a dwarf variety of the famous plant used in Egypt, it’s supposed to reach 4 or 5 feet. It’s not frost-hardy, of course, but I understand it’s easy to root new plantlets by inverting the flower stalk in water, which is what happens naturally as the plant dies down. The small plants may be wintered indoors and set out the following spring.

Papyrus "King Tut"

Papyrus “King Tut”


Added to my garden tool kit this week is a Hori-Hori Knife, a tool which originated in Japan, and combines features of a knife and a trowel. Its original purpose was plant gathering in the wild. It’s a formidable thing, with a thick blade and sharpened edges, one of which is serrated for root cutting. Suckers, look out!

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.


While all this was going on, the hybrid tea rose “Fragrant Cloud” opened two of its six buds to perfection. It is truly well-named, exuding an intense, true rose fragrance. The plant is a scrawny, feeble-looking specimen that lives in a large pot. It had a bad case of black spot earlier this spring, which totally defoliated the old wood, but put out new growth that is free of black spot, and six buds.

"Fragrant Cloud" bud #1

“Fragrant Cloud” bud #1


Bud #1 fully opened

Bud #1 fully opened


Bud #2, leaning against Olympic Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Bud #2, leaning against Olympic Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)