Seven Things My Perennial Garden Taught Me

Day lilies, hemerocallis, perenennial garden

My Day Lilies in Bloom

“Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow

All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row, someone bless these seeds I sow

Someone warm them from below ‘til the rain come tumbling down.”

Sometimes being a perennial gardener is a lot like being a member of Red Sox Nation.  You buy a new plant or get an outtake from a neighbor’s garden and put it in exactly the right place. You water it and fertilize it but after that it’s wait until next year. A nursery plant will probably do alright; otherwise it’s a sacrifice fly. The new addition may put out a few blooms during its first summer in a new location but typically the plant will be spend that time gathering its energy, putting down roots and getting ready to survive the winter. It won’t achieve its glorious best until the following summer.

Bee balm, monarda, perennial garden

Bee Balm

Of course, unforeseen things happen along the way.  This year I moved a small coral bells to a better location and a wild turkey immediately used the spot for a dust bath, pretty much demolishing it.  A hosta I put in a shady place near a rhododendron is still weak and puny in its second year, even though other annuals and perennials are thriving nearby.

The lavender plants that bloomed so beautifully last year died in the cold blasts of last winter. Only one of three phlox survived and I’m not sure why. The bee balm is gorgeous but shorter than last year and the yarrow that was so prolific last summer has few blooms now. Go figure.

Housework Outside

In our old house I had more borders and gardens that I (eventually) could or wanted to maintain. The pleasure drained out of gardening and it became a chore—like housework but outside. Here I started with a smaller patch and expanded it a little this summer. It’s easier to stay on top of the weeds, deadhead the blooms that have gone by, pick off the Japanese beetles, and fertilize on a regular basis.  Gardening is back to being fun again.

Siberian iris, perennial garden

Too much iris

To get to this point, of course, I had to invest a lot of sweat equity last summer, which was hot and dry. I hoicked out things planted by the previous owner like creeping euonymus and Siberian iris.  In my opinion, the former has no place among perennials and the latter, while gorgeous for a brief period in the spring, is invasive. There was so much Siberian iris, it was pushing out everything else.

My husband and I dug and pried and pulled and hauled until we got each giant clump out of the ground. I hate to throw out growing things but, really, nobody wanted this stuff and a lot of it got pitched. When it was gone, everything else gathered itself, took a deep breath, and said, “Now we can grow again.” Last summer I planted way too many day lilies from Bob Seawright’s now-closed garden because I would never have the chance to get such a variety of shapes, sizes and colors again. This year they are spectacular.

Perennial Lessons

If you pay attention, perennial gardens teach you a lot. Here are seven things my perennial garden taught me:

  1. Patience: The desired result probably won’t happen right away and the plant may not be thriving by next year, either. Keep watering and fertilizing. Do your best and hope for the best.
  2. Acceptance: It is what it is. You may not understand why the phlox didn’t come back or the wild turkey chose that time and place for its dust bath. But if, as Dr. McCoy said so often on Star Trek, “It’s dead, Jim,” them’s the breaks.
  3. Resilience:  Yes, the plant was gorgeous last year and this summer it’s gone. Get over it, figure out what to do next, and move on. Yes, there’s a rock right where you wanted to plant that iris. Put down the trowel, get the shovel and start digging.
  4. Ruthlessness: You have to make tough decisions and act on them. If it’s in the wrong place, move it. If something is damaged, diseased or invasive, haul it out. Shoots and runners may be living but not every little shoot is sacred. If it’s overgrown, prune it. If it’s infested, kill those little pests. If it’s poison ivy, kill it. Kill it again. And again. And again.
  5. day lily, triple bloom

    Triple Bloom in Peach

    Gratitude:  Appreciate the year when the garden looks beautiful. Enjoy the astilbe that was attached to the hosta you bought at the Garden Club plant sale and gave you a twofer. Marvel at the day lily with triple blooms. Be thankful for the sunshine and the rain.

  6. Bounty: This year my garden hums with bees, flickers with hummingbirds and floats with butterflies. For them, my flowers are not just beautiful, they’re sustenance. I’m happy to provide it and, in turn, I get to watch them going busily from flower to flower all day long.
  7. Generosity:  In time, some perennials grow too big and start bullying the plants around them. Take them up, divide them, and offer the outtakes to your gardening friends. Or plant them where others will appreciate them.

Give a Little, Get a Lot

Last year I planted some hybrid lilies along a stone wall near my old house as a parting gift to Sudbury. A few days ago I drove by and they are blooming beautifully. Someone had mowed carefully around them.  A neighbor is putting flowers in a town cemetery near where a relative is buried. Several years ago the Landscape Committee at my church dedicated plants and time to the grounds of a Habitat for Humanity house that was going up. Look around and see if there’s a place or an organization that will appreciate your gift.

Golden GloryGardening also teaches you to smell the roses—even if you don’t have any. It gets you out of your chair and away from a screen. In the garden, you spend hours breathing fresh air, watching the birds and insects, getting your hands dirty, nurturing something outside of yourself. You may come back in tired, dirty, and scratching a few mosquito bites but that’s a small price to pay for what the garden gives back to you.

“So plant your rows straight and long, temper them with prayer and song

Mother Earth can keep you strong if you give her love and care

Old crow watching hungrily from his perch in yonder tree

In my garden I’m as free as that feathered thief up there.”

The Garden Song by David Mallett

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