perennials

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

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Thugs, Prima Donnas… and Mulleins

When I began making this garden in 1992, I didn’t have a lot to spend on the project, so I was happy to fill up the space with pass-along plants from other gardeners, waifs and strays of unknown provenance and tough, easy-to-grow self-seeders. Many of these are still with me, prospering despite the sandy, tree-root-infested soil and dry summers. I’ve written about them here already.

Like most gardeners, I’ve also wanted to grow more challenging plants — refined roses, delphiniums, oriental lilies and (the gardener’s supreme challenge), Himalayan blue poppies. For several years, I pored over the catalogues of a nursery located in the Fraser Valley, and every year brought home a selection of their offerings. I ordered seeds of carefully-researched perennials and successfully raised seedlings. Some of those acquisitions are still with me, and a few are doing well.

Geranium "Anne Folkard" and Clematis integrifolia

Geranium “Anne Folkard” and Clematis integrifolia

 

Dictamnus albus

Dictamnus albus

But. (There’s always a “but”).

My garden is now bursting full. If I want to try something new, something has to be removed. Quite a few of the purchased and grown-from-seed plants are long gone, remembered only from a sad collection of labels in my garden shed. Cosmos atrosanguineus, Gaura lindheimeri “Siskiyou Pink,” Lamium maculatum “White Nancy,” R.I.P. Farewell, Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam,” Trifolium repens “Dragon’s Blood” and Cimicifuga racemosa.

The good old tough plants are, of course, thriving. Hellebores, toadflax, rose campion, lamb’s ears, lady’s mantle, foxgloves, fireweed and a number of ferns. The fussy, “quality” plants, however, live in pots. No root competition and individual attention from the gardener in the form of fertilizer and water.

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Pots aren’t foolproof, however. I bought this potted lily a week ago to replace two that gave up the ghost because I allowed self-seeded “hitchhiker” plants to take over their pots. Another threat is excessive winter wetness. A couple of my delphiniums perished from that, and it was literally death to my idea of growing blue poppies in pots. Better results may be possible if one ensured really good drainage and situated the pots in a spot out of the rain (and remembered to check for excessive dryness at times over the winter).

For the past three years, my blue poppies have had their own bed near a magnolia. Last year they bloomed; this year they decided to give it a miss, even though they look healthy. I am catering to them with mulches of compost and peat, extra fertilizer, regular watering and shade from afternoon sun. As in farming and hockey, maybe next year.

Tough plants need to be controlled and discouraged. Delicate beauties need to be cosseted and coaxed. Pots aren’t always a solution and there are no guarantees.

But mulleins look great most of the time. I have given over my former vegetable patch to herbs and mulleins — Verbascum olympicum and Verbascum chaixii. Even before they bloom, they look interesting.

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Mulleins seem to know that anticipation is almost better than fulfillment. They take a long time to grow their bloom stalks and look great through the process.

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the end, I have to ignore the distinctions between tough plants, refined plants, purchased or self-seeded. Right now, the garden looks pretty good. Right now. That’s what counts.

May 31, 2014

 

 

Life and Death of Gardens

Plant communities in nature go through something called “succession,” progressing through different groups of mutually cooperating plants until an optimal configuration is attained for the local conditions. This is called a “climax” plant community, be it a forest, a meadow, a prairie or a desert. Each wave of plants creates conditions favourable to the next wave, unwittingly sacrificing themselves for their successors.

It occurs to me that something analogous happens with gardens. I speak here of ornamental gardens, consisting mainly of perennials and shrubs. I have gardened in the same neighbourhood now for nearly 20 years, long enough to have observed the horticultural goings-on around me as well as participated in them on my own 50′ x 120′ patch.

A brand new garden always attracts attention. Sod is stripped, old, overgrown shrubs chopped down and their stumps dug up.  Sometimes new lawn is seeded or installed along with the new beds.  One day, there it is — perennials and shrubs turned out of their nursery pots and planted, looking young and eager. Each plant is sensibly distant from its neighbour and the soil is covered with a nice mulch of compost or cedar bark. Very nice. Whenever I see these new, freshly-made gardens, I feel a wave of envy and think I really should do something about my place, which has moved well beyond the young and hopeful stage.

Here’s what happens: some plants grow vigorously, others don’t. Some die. The gardener acquires new plants, which are fitted in among the originals. Eventually, perhaps, the gardener/homeowner goes on holiday, gets busy with other projects or persists in the deluded belief that planting is the hardest part and all that’s needed after that is to water occasionally and enjoy the show.

A few years down the road, many of those shiny new gardens don’t look so good.  Shrubs have ballooned, squeezing out the perennials between them. Self-seeders have colonized beyond the neat circles originally allotted to them on the gardener’s plan, overwhelming whatever more refined plants were nearby. Weeds have crept in, or, in the case of impossible-to-get-rid-of horrors like bindweed, made a triumphant comeback, first embracing the newcomers, eventually engulfing them.

In the worst case, a sort of “climax,” or more accurately, a final resting state is attained — the tough and hardy survive, the rest die out. By this time, the property may have changed hands and the new owners have had their way with the place, sodding over the failed perennial beds and whacking back the rambunctious shrubs. From garden to mere “yard” in a few short years.

The grand perennial borders of England are, as I understand it, regulalry reworked. Most of the plants are dug up, the undesirables discarded, the desirables divided if necessary and replanted in renewed soil. New varieties are added to replace outmoded ones or subjects that had failed to prosper. Instead of falling into decline, the garden is refreshed and begins anew. But only with copious inputs of time and labour.

Parts of my place are in need of this treatment. I should draw up a schedule for renewal, area by area, and carry it out over the next several years. A Five Year Plan: rip out the excess Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia. Divide those irises. Dig up the sponge-like layer of maple tree feeding roots and cart in fresh soil and compost. Select new lilies and hostas, hardy geraniums and variegated brunneras. Page through books of plant descriptions, make lists, get excited about garden-making again.

Maybe next winter. Maybe not. Right now, we’re still in Hell Month.  We hit a high of 33 C yesterday (90 F). Last week’s rain (a total of 7.5 mm. or about 1/4 inch) is a distant memory. The garden is supposed to look horrible just now, but it’s still a garden, not a “yard.”