The Dirty Truth(s) about Gardening Part 1 Perennials

By: Anne Corke

Nov 04 2011

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Category: Gardening

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“Regrets, I’ve had a few..” Well, actually I’ve had more than a few, gardening regrets, that is. Since I started gardening in earnest, almost twenty years ago, I have learned that this is not a hobby for the faint of heart. The garden is a battleground where the intrepid gardener must contend with unpredictable weather, plagues of insects, and marauding mammals, not to mention their own physical and mental frailty. Never mind donning those lovely white shorts and fancy garden gloves, gird your loins for war! Lucky for you, I’m willing to share some of the lessons that I have learned, the hard way of course! Read on and be forewarned!

Part 1. Perennials

1. It’s not entirely true that perennials are low maintenance. Although you don’t have to replant perennials every year as you do your annuals, they still require maintenance, some more than others. After all, assuming they are happy in your garden, they will grow in size which means that at some point you will want to dig them up and divide them. While it’s always nice to have more plants for your garden, you will eventually run out of room. When that time comes, you may decide to dig another garden, or you might offer your “babies” to friends or neighbours, or donate them to the local horticultural society plant sale. And while some perennials, such as peonies and daylilies, will grow happily for many years without dividing, others, as they grow, will die out in the centre, forcing you to divide them every two or three years or put up with an increasingly unsightly specimen in your garden. Perennials also need feeding and watering. The easiest way to feed your perennials is to top dress your gardens with compost each year. If you don’t compost yourself, most cities sell compost at a reasonable price. Of course, if you wish, you can always buy plant food but why incur that extra expense when you could spend the money on more plants! When it comes to watering, make life easier for yourself by grouping plants with similar water requirements together, or better yet, plant drought tolerant varieties and let nature water them. But don’t forget that even drought tolerant plants will require watering in their first year or in severe drought conditions.

2. Not all plants stay where they are planted. In my naivete, I assumed that plants are rather sedentary and unlikely to stray far from home. Not so! There are many plants out there with a genetic wanderlust, a number of which I have planted in my garden over the years. These gypsies include beebalm (a mint relative, enough said) which travelled from the northwest to the northeast corner of the house in one season, turtlehead, which followed the same route and seems about to turn the corner and invade the east garden, and bugleweed, which began in the rockgarden in the southeast part of the property and now lives in the daylily bed on the west side of the house (and in my neighbour’s lawn – sshhh!). Of these gypsies, there is no trace where they were originally planted. And although I tried planting the beebalm in a sunken tub to keep it at home, it pined for it’s freedom and faded away. So should you decide you must have these travellers in your garden, be sure you have room for them to roam.

3. Some plants are sex maniacs. In addition to the travellers, there are of course the prolific self-seeders which do not so much travel as populate your gardens with gay abandon. These sexy little numbers include flax, balloon flowers and my favourite coneflowers, which if I were to deadhead them, would have their reproduction seriously curtailed. But the goldfinches love the seeds so I put up with the babies, which pop up everywhere in the spring, in the interests of providing winter food for my feathered friends. Another self-seeder is lady’s mantle. The one pictured above has self-seeded in the cracks in the path but looks rather lovely with it’s soft green leaves hung with dewdrops contrasting beautifully with the harsh grey stone. (Can you tell it’s probably going to be allowed to stay?) And then there are the chives, beloved by the bees, a bloody nuisance in my books. Tiny green shoots, not much thicker than a hair, silently push through the earth not only in any open spaces in the gardens but also right in amongst the leaves and roots of other plants, hardly noticeable until they have established a good strong foothold which will frustrate your efforts to remove them. Another rampant reproducer is pulmonaria, or what my husband refers to as the $14 plant. That was what I paid for the original plant and dear hubby thought that a bit excessive. But over the years this plant has produced hundreds of little pulmonaria with lovely dark green leaves spotted with silver and delicate flowers in pastel pinks and blues. Since pulmonaria is one of those rare plants that will do well in dry shade, many of them have filled in bare spots in shady parts of my garden and many more have found homes with neighbours and friends. Excellent value, don’t you think?

4. There is a criminal underworld of plants. There are, lurking quietly at the garden centres, wicked plants which would take advantage of your kindness and repay it by running rampant throughout your gardens, leading you on a merry chase to exterminate them which will only end in tears – yours. These plants seem demure and appealing at the nursery but once adopted and planted in a nice bed of carefully amended garden soil, they will take over, resisting all your efforts to contain them and mugging their neighbours. When you eventually realize that they must not be allowed to live, it’s too late. They have won and they will continue to appear everywhere you don’t want them! For years, I have fought a losing battle with several of these plants including Japanese anemones, sea holly, ostrich fern, yellow loosestrife, periwinkle and species roses, and I would seriously advise that you avoid these thugs at all cost. You will never win this battle.

5. Don’t believe everything the staff at the garden centre tell you. In the beginning of my gardening “career”, I was looking for a fern for the north side of the house. A garden centre employee suggested an ostrich fern and assured me that it was a compact, well-behaved plant. I brought one home and it settled in nicely. Now some fifteen years later, ostrich ferns have taken over the north garden (see number 4 above). I am constantly nagging my husband to pick and eat the young fronds in spring, in the hopes that he might curtail the growth a bit, whether by the actually picking of the fronds or by causing emotional trauma to the plants by threatening to eat their babies! Whatever, he never seems to get around to it. But since we don’t use that side of the property, I’ve decided to let the ferns go wild there. I rather like that carefree look. The moral of this story, do your research!

6. Be sure to mark the locations of any late emerging perennials. Many years ago, I planted three balloon flowers in my front bed. The next spring, my husband was arranging rocks in the garden and placed one rather artfully right on top of one of them. To be fair, none of the three had yet made an appearance so it was an honest mistake. Just this spring, my friend Joanne, who helps in spring and fall with the heavy work, was spreading a nice thick layer of mulch on the beds and covered my butterfly weeds. Luckily most of them managed to fight their way through the mulch to daylight, but we did lose one. We now have their places marked with stakes.

7. Avoid fussy plants. Unless you are one of those gardeners who really like a challenge, don’t bother with difficult plants. Dear friends of mine spent years trying to establish edelweiss in the rock garden of their Toronto home. And they did eventually succeed – right before they retired and moved to Kingston! I dabbled in Lewisia, a flowering succulent native to western North America. I planted them in the rock garden where the soil is well-drained. I knew that the soil was probably too rich for them so I tried planting them in pockets of peagravel, to no avail. They withered and died. I think they would do best in a scree garden. Many people attempt to grow plants which require very specific conditions, plants like the Himalayan Blue Poppy. Now there’s a fussy plant if ever there was one. It requires partial, dappled shade and protection from strong, drying winds. It likes rich, well-drained acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. You mustn’t let the soil dry out between waterings, yet you must not overwater or your plants will suffer from crown rot and possibly mildew. What a prima donna!

8. In the end, the best way to ensure success in the garden is to be diligent about choosing and placing your plants. Take time to assess the conditions in your gardens, the amount of sun, the drainage, the type of soil, and so on, then choose plants which will suit them. To borrow an idiom from the world of horse racing, “Horses for courses”, or in this case, “Plants for places”. If a plant is not doing well, chances are it’s not happy with the conditions. Sometimes simply moving it to a more suitable location will give it a new lease on life. Keep it simple. Work with what you’ve got. There are lots of wonderful plants available, many of which will be just right for your garden.

I seem to have rattled on a bit, so I will save more of my “truths about gardening” for my next post. In the meantime, please comment and share your experiences with me.

Copyright 2011 Anne Corke

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