transplanting perennials

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.

 

Refugee Plants

Spring approaches, and being an inveterate list-maker, I have lists of things to do in the garden. One of them is called Plants to be Moved.

In my garden, there are two reasons for a plant to be moved. The obvious one is that it’s not doing well in its present spot, usually because of encroaching shade and tree roots. Like an invading army, they make life inhospitable for any plant that can’t put up with their coarse ways. Blue poppies, delphiniums, lilies, even hostas have succumbed in the past, unless I, the gardener, provide another option — moving to a better spot. If I detect signs of decline, such as decreasing size and fewer flowers, I make a note to move the sufferer, usually the following spring — if it survives that long.

Then there’s the just-in-case, or insurance move. The idea here is to move divisions of a valued plant to different spots, in case things go bad with the original one. I have a patch of gentians in the front garden which has done amazingly well, considering that gentians are reputed to be fussy and death-prone. Thinking that their success has been due to an extended run of beginner’s luck, I moved a small section a few years ago. It has slowly increased in size and even bloomed a little last year. This spring I will move another couple of divisions to a spot near the original one where these eye-catching (when in bloom) plants can be better seen, also replacing some weedy things such as violets and California poppies. The trick will be to make sure that the gentians are unmolested until they become established. After that I hope they will spread just as the parent clump has done.

Another type of move is when volunteer seedlings appear in places where I don’t want them, even though they are desirable plants. Mulleins are a good example. I identify spots where single mulleins would be good, and move selected seedlings. Although tap-rooted, mulleins can be successfully transplanted when young. This year there are about a dozen young plants of Verbena bonariensis in the middle of the ex-vegetable patch which I intend to turn into a herb garden. I may leave a few in place, not being as much of a purist about what constitutes a “herb” as was the venerable Henry Beston. But I will move the rest to other spots in the garden where these slender plants are sure to be an asset. I’m actually happy to see all these seedlings, as I had great and unexplained losses of V. bonariensis last winter.

The fate of refugee plants varies. Some do well in their new homes, others, already weak, die soon after the move. Still others survive but fail to thrive, and so are moved yet again. There is a plant of Digitalis ferruginea in one of my front garden beds that has managed to bloom only once — and somewhat stingily at that — in the 5 or 6 years since I acquired it. I have moved it four times, and have reason to hope that its current spot is to its liking.

The hardest part of all these plant moves? Finding the Better Spots in my rooty, shady garden. I will have to start creating them by moving a few of those happy, hearty tough plants that need no coddling at all — to the compost heap.