perennial beds

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

Plant ID

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.