My garden photos are often closeups of individual plants or groups of plants. So I thought it was time to post some wider views, in the form of a tour. The garden is at its best right now (early May), when it’s still lush and green.
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*:
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.)
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.
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.
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, 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
Managing an undisciplined perennial bed is rather like keeping track of a bunch of unruly children. It’s impossible to keep your eye on everyone and almost certain that someone is perpetrating mischief when you’re not looking. Plants get bigger, die suddenly, seed exuberantly and send out sneaky runners that pop up in spots never intended by the gardener. In a mixed border that contains shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs, it can be hard to tell who’s who, what’s where and whatever happened to that.
I’ve done a lot of raking lately, including pulling leaves from the perennial beds, working around cut stalks, standing stalks, shrubs and stakes. Not infrequently, I find plant labels among the leaves I’ve raked out. Geranium macrorrhizum “Album,” one proclaims. Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost,” says another. With luck, I’ll actually remember where these plants are and restore the labels to the correct spots. But not always.
Years ago, I bought a supply of plant tags made of thin copper. The idea was to impress a plant’s name into the soft metal with a pen and attach the label to the plant using the wires at one end. That’s fine for shrubs, but doesn’t work so well for herbaceous subjects that die down when dormant. For those — tulips and lilies, as I recall — I fastened the tags to short stakes which I inserted next to the plants they designated. The problem was, of course, that over the years the stakes rotted and fell over. Occasionally I rake them up, with the copper labels still attached and pretty much illegible due to oxidization. So much for that. (Most of the lilies have succumbed to tree root competition, so it really doesn’t matter).
Some will ask — why bother with plant labels at all? Why make your garden look like one of those meet and greet sessions where the participants all wear a sticker that says “Hello my name is …?” Can’t you tell what the plants are just by looking at them? Yes, when they have top growth. But when they go dormant — and of course a lot of bulbs are summer dormant — they may as well not exist, until the gardener jabs a fork into their midst to plant something else. Then there is swearing and lamentation at the impaled lily bulb or whatever.
Many gardeners draw up maps of their perennial beds, usually at the planning stage. In theory, these maps can be kept up to date and referred to before doing any digging, but let’s be realistic. It’s hard to keep up with all the antics plants get up to on their own, and it takes a pretty obsessive-compulsive type of gardener to note on the map all the changes that happen over the years. I’ll bet most of us have no idea where these maps are after a while.
Plant labels are the logical choice, but it’s hard to find good ones. Wood rots, plastic becomes brittle and snaps. Any label stuck in the ground is vulnerable to being yanked out by a rake or raccoon (seriously!), or buried. The best labels are probably ones made entirely of aluminum or zinc. I understand they can be written on, and presumably the writing won’t fade. I note that permanent marker pens are recommended, but really, is anything permanent when subjected to outdoor conditions year after year? Those metal labels are quite pricey as well — about $2 each for oversize aluminum ones, although somewhat more modest zinc ones are less than $20 for a set of 25.
I admit that after my experience with the copper tags, I’ve pretty much given up on labelling my perennials. When I plant something new, I dutifully stick the plastic label it came with into the soil beside the plant, consigning it to its fate. Ironically, if the new introduction happens to expire in short order, I retrieve the label and put it into a tin can in the shed — a kind of memorial to plants that didn’t make it. Looking through this catalogue of failures is humbling and disheartening. Cimicifuga racemosa, Ajuga reptans “Burgundy glow,” Imperata cylindrica “Red Baron,” Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam.” It’s a long list of plants that simply could not face the thought of life in this garden and made an exit to a better world. Requiescat in pacem. At least all those labels have given me something to remember them by.