Monday, April 10, 2006

The Children of Perennials


        Regular readers of Weeds and Wisdom all know what a parsimonious old Yankee I am, and since opposites attract they've probably guessed that Hank is a charmingly generous fellow.  By the time our three daughters reached their teens they'd come to their own conclusions about managing money.   One handled her finances conservatively, but not as tightfistedly as her mom.  Another was a free-spender, generous beyond her means.  The third saved and hoarded her money for months, then suddenly would splurge to the point of being stone-broke. Of course now that all three are married their spending habits are not my concern.
        Having just come in from dead-heading iris and dozens of spent daffodils in the flower border, I've decided that perennials are like children in how they handle their lives.  Despite the fact that they're raised in the same bed with the same love and care and basic rules to live by, they all have different ideas about how to get on in life. Some are overly generous with their seeds, squandering them all over the place while others don't bother producing any seeds worth counting. 
        Chinese forget-me-nots are real profligates.  Each year these heavenly patches of blue that dot the border in early May throw away their seeds like rich American tourists scattering dollar bills.  They end up so destitute that they wither away.  The next spring their children are so numerous they form a new sea of blue in the border.
        The little daisy called feverfew is not quite so extravagant.  It, too, scatters seeds that soon grow into new plants, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.  But unlike forget-me-nots, feverfew parents keep hanging on tenaciously the following year.  I uproot these old plants and let the children take their places.  If the parents are allowed to stay a second year their tough old stems must be cut down with a clipper to make them look respectable.
        Phlox is a pretty conservative perennial, rarely self-seeding.  Its clumps get a little larger each year and needs some thinning in late spring but otherwise take care of themselves.  Once in a while though, a weed like bedstraw or vetch will sneak into a clump and establish itself so firmly that there's no removing it.  At first it just looks ugly, but after a few years it may dominate the clump.  Then it's time to dig up the phlox and throw it away.  Replace it by dividing another clump that's weed-free.
        Iris propagates itself by adding offshoots to the end of its rhizome each year.  Eventually these extensions crowd each other and need replanting or they'll get root rot, a very unattractive disease.  Less crowding will occur if you plant the rhizomes in a circle so new growth forms away from the center. Do this in July when bloom is past but there's still time for the new planting to get re-established. The self-centered peony just gets bigger and better without investing in anything but itself. The tree peony in my photo gets even more spectacular each year and has the additional advantage of having sturdy stems that don't require staking.  Unlike many perennials which offer the gardener new plants if allowed to self-seed, the peonies don't seem to care about producing offspring.  Deadheading these handsome perennials is merely for looks.
              I've never minded the job of deadheading.  I love walking down the border on a dewy spring morning, breaking off the dried-up fleur-de-lis of iris  that have finished blooming, or removing the spent spires of lobelia as dusk settles on the October garden. What I don't like is the name - deadheading. I just looked it up in the dictionary and was surprised to find the first definition was "A person who uses a free ticket for admittance."  Three more definitions preceded the one about pulling dead or dying blossoms from a flower.
        Well, whatever it's called, it varies from one perennial to the next. Some plants such as Shasta daisies look brown and ugly if their tired blooms aren't removed; others like astilbes can be left all summer long. Removing the finished blooms of delphiniums has its own reward, as this perennial will often produce a second bloom. 
        Then there are greedy perennials that may not produce lots of seeds but can take over areas of the garden as their roots expand.  Artemisia is a prime example.  Evening primrose and beebalm are two more.  All three need to be kept in check by pulling up their roots as they become too invasive.
        Oh, I almost forgot one of the easiest flowers in the garden - daylilies.  These perennials have almost no faults. They are so hardy and grow so thickly that they are hardly ever attacked by weeds.  They carry on for years and years, just getting more attractive each year.  Yes, one has to cut off the old dead stalks in late fall or pull them (much easier) in early spring, but that's it until you decide to divide one and get two. 
        And that's one of the greatest things about perennials.  What a mathematical miracle - divide and you're multiplying. For this old penny pincher all those "freebies" are a treat.  After dividing and multiplying I feel just like Lady Bountiful as I give away the extras. 

A Crocus Conversation

        "Oh, doesn't that sun feel great!" exclaimed the lavender crocus, opening her petals luxuriously.
        "I'll say," replied the deep yellow one, stretching his stubby stem a little higher.
        "And that south breeze is better than a massage."
        "A massage is just what I need! Getting out of the ground was exhausting this year."
        "Yes, I know," the lavender lady sympathized.  "Fighting all those dead leaves and that layer of road sand."
        "Why do you suppose Mrs. T. planted us in this spot anyway? I loved our old home."
        "But that bed  was getting awfully crowded with so many children."
        "Yeah, but a flower bed's a lot more pleasant than living here among a bunch of flagstones."
        "I wouldn't complain if I were you.  Most of our friends are over there by the woodpile.  The mess of old bark that accumulated over the winter is a lot harder to get through than road sand.  The few who've managed to do it still look battered and bruised from the experience.  The rest haven't even gotten up far enough to feel this great sunshine."
        "Guess you're right.  And once we're all up and blooming, we'll look pretty cute right here in front.  No one even saw us way out there in-"
        "Woe!" the yellow crocus interrupted.  "Here comes Mrs. T."
        "Uh-oh, we may be in for a bit of a squash.  I  think she's forgotten that she put us here last fall."
        "She's obviously planning to do some spring cleaning.  Got a broom and a bunch of buckets.  Sure wish she'd gotten around to it earlier.  Then we wouldn't have had to fight all this debris."
        "Just listen to her," a pale yellow crocus chortled, "she's spotted my cousin coming up there where she's working."
        "Oh, you dear little thing!  Where'd you come from? I'm so sorry.  Did I hurt you?
        "She's sort of batty, isn't she! Do you suppose other humans think they can communicate with the plant world?"
        "Oh, I think gardeners do.  Don't be so hard on her.  After all, she saved almost all our children last fall when she dug up our bed."
        "Well, I sure hope she wakes up and remembers where she put us pretty soon.  She's going crazy with that broom!"
        ""Whew, what an effort!" groaned a deep purple crocus, emerging from around the edge of a flagstone.  "Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.  I didn't think I'd ever see blue sky again."
        "Howdy, friend," said the yellow crocus.  "Glad you made it. Mrs. T hasn't cottoned onto the fact that this is where she put us to bed last October.  She's going at the clean-up with a vengeance."
        "She really gets excited, doesn't she?  Remember when she dug us all us? You'd think she'd found a pot of gold coins."
        "Yeah," added a tiny baby who'd managed to rise above the grit further along the terrace.  What's she-"
        "Oh, you cute things! I do believe I actually planted you here!  I'm so sorry.  Didn't mean to hurt.  I'll be very careful from now on."
        "She's cleaning the ivy.  Those leaves always winterkill along the edge of the porch."
        "Well, you would, too, if you had to sit right out here all winter, one minute freezing to death, the next minute burning up with sunshine."
        "Yes, but look at the ivy climbing up the maple tree over there.  It looks great."
        "That's fancy 198th Street ivy.  It's not supposed to winterkill."
"Get your numbers straight," said the deep purple blossom.  "It's 238th Street ivy.  Somebody from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden found it in the Bronx.  One of Mrs. T's readers brought it to her."
        "Watch it!" the yellow crocus warned suddenly.  "She's headed this way with the broom."
        "She knows we're here though," a small white crocus who'd emerged a few minutes before  pointed out. "See, she's only stepping on the flagstones now, and being very gentle with the broom.  We'll be alright."