The Perennial Optimist

Anticipating spring

Every autumn my mother went to her local garden center to buy bulbs. Taking one of the paper bags they provided, ever so carefully she would fill it to the brim with all kinds of bulbs. Slowly she packed them in together, nestling the little bulbs— like snowdrops and scilla— into the crannies between the daffodils and tulips, until every last space was taken.

You see, at her garden center, you paid for your bulbs BY THE BAG.

So, the more you could squeeze in the bag, the better the deal!!

Perfect pairing: yellow daffodils and blue scilla

She would then take everything home and plant her new treasures in the garden, ever optimistic that, six months from now, she would be enjoying them in flower. She followed this ritual for years, and always delighted in telling me about her feat of fitting all those bulbs into a single bag.

Of course, one year the inevitable happened, the spring when she was no longer there to enjoy her snowdrops and crocuses, tulips and daffodils.

But, instead of dwelling on that sadness, I choose to remember my mother as the wonderful optimist that she was. I recall how she anticipated all the different plants that would emerge from the soil, and the profusion of flowers that would brighten even the rainiest days.

Perennial optimists

All gardeners are consummate optimists. It is the essence of who we are.

Each year we plan and we plant, knowing full well it will be months—or even years— before the results of our labors will come to fruition. And sometimes, such as when we plant a maple tree, the main beneficiaries of our efforts will be those who come after us.

On our barn slope, first the snowdrops and then the daffodils return to greet the new season.
And over the years, as they multiply, I transplant some to the edge of the woods where, unaided, they continue to flourish..

However, unlike my mother, I no longer plant new bulbs in my garden each fall. More than 15 years ago I planted several hundred daffodil bulbs in our Vermont garden, (about twelve different varieties as I remember) thinking about springs to come as well as the daffodil’s reputation as being unpalatable to deer. Some years later I added a few dozen snowdrops to the barn slope.

These few hundred daffodils and few dozen snowdrops have now multiplied beyond anything I could ever have imagined and each spring their incredible display helps me greet the new gardening season with joy in my heart.

Towards the end of May, once flowering is complete but while the foliage still shows me where the bulbs are hiding in the earth, I dig up some of the excess from the beds, and replant them at the edge of the woods and along the roadside. Here they continue to flourish without any further attention from me  (no annual dressing of bonemeal needed!), giving pleasure for years to come, both to me and to those who will live here afterwards…certainly my gardening optimism at work.

The ever-evolving garden

Even though I don’t plant bulbs any more, my current fall rituals also yield results that will only be visible many months from now.

Autumn is when I find myself mulling over the season just past, and then planning potential changes for the future. It is part of the long-term rhythm of my gardening life.

A few years back in the late fall it was the turn of our barn slope for a makeover.
I have been delighted with the results.

Some years it will be a single bed which positively cries out a complete makeover—where the shrubs need pruning and the perennials need editing, and where the weeds are running rampant.

The new path up the barn slope is edged by a large Hosta and the long-blooming Geranium Rozanne

The barn slope was one such area, a space we see from the back of the house, made all the more apparant because we look UP to it. Renovation was a massive undertaking that included weed removal, some regrading and then adding some low rock walls, followed by new plants. But wow, the results have been amazing and well worth the effort.

These lilac-colored asters and the rosy colored Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ seem made for each other—something I plan to copy elsewhere.

Other years I will see all these places in the garden where, just by moving a few plants from one spot to another, I could refine the the balance of color and texture through the season—it’s my version of ‘musical chairs’.

In both cases, my overall goal is to finish up with plants that I really like, and have them better spaced and grouped so that, in the coming years, they will create a more beautiful tapestry of color and texture.

I try (not always successfully) to approach these activities without too many recriminations about the season just past. After all, every garden changes as it matures, and sometimes unexpected things happen along the way. And through careful observation we learn what works and what needs modification.  For sure, gardening is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical undertaking.


Contrary to instinct, it is preferable to move plants around in the fall, rather than spring.

If I dig up my perennials in spring I find it all too easy to damage the young soft green top growth that is just emerging. The roots too are actively growing and easily dry out when exposed to the sun.

These lovely New England Asters are the perfect complement for some brash yellow Black Eyes Susans.
In a few weeks’ time a hard frost will finish their flowering, and it will be an excellent time to cull some divisions.

But all perennials in the fall, as part of their preparation for winter, become dormant (a bit like going into hibernation). The green tops die back and the physiological activity in the roots gradually slows. So, by waiting to dig and divide my perennials until after their leaves turn brown, I can minimize their stress.

Also, since the roots are semi-dormant, after I dig them up I can take my time about moving them to new locations, either within the bed where I am working, or elsewhere in the garden.

And, providing you can find good quality stock where the roots have not become pot-bound, autumn is also an excellent time to plant newly purchased shrubs and perennials. So a visit to the nursery often figures into my plans as well.

At this time of year the entire process can be undertaken in a gentle leisurely manner, starting at the beginning of October and, if necessary, continuing well into November, halted only when the ground freezes solid.

Of course, fall is also when all deciduous shrubs and trees drop their leaves. Once this has happened it is a signal that they too are in the process of entering their winter dormancy, and can be safely pruned.

The only downside to pruning shrubs in the fall and winter is for those that flower on the previous year’s wood (such as rhododendron and azaleas, as well as lilacs and viburnums). By pruning them in the fall I may remove some of the buds and sacrifice a few of next year’s flowers. Sometimes however, in order to complete the makeover of a particular corner of the garden, this is a trade-off I am willing to make.

Recipe for Overhauling a Tired Bed

Here is is my step-by-step recipe for giving that problem bed a thorough makeover:

First stand back and survey the scene. Recall how the bed looked in spring, summer and fall, what worked well and what could do with changing. For example, if it is currently devoted to perennials, by introducing some shrubs would give it more visual weight.

I will soak this iris root mass in water for a couple of hours.
After that it will be easy to remove all the grassy weeds.

Take a mental inventory of the existing plants; which ones I really like; which ones I like somewhat; and which ones I wish were never there at all and should be consigned to the compost. Look for plants that would look better in a new spot, either within the bed I am reworking, or somewhere else altogether.

Do a ‘test dig’ to analyze the weed situation. Look for running weeds—such as witch grass,  recognizable by its white roots— as well dandelions with their long tenacious taproots.

Dig up all the perennials, and immediately throw out all that I dislike and those that are too full of weeds to save.

Iris roots ready to replant or give to a gardening friend
Iris roots cleaned and ready to replant or give to a gardening friend

Take everything else and, for each clump, soak the entire root mass in water for a couple of hours. This will make it much easier to separate out the weeds and to divide all the larger plants before replanting.

Put all the divided weed-free roots in plastic bags to stop them drying out, using one bag for each type of plant, carefully labelling the bag.

Take a sturdy garden fork, sift through the soil, and chase down all the weed roots I can possibly find.

Dig in plenty of compost throughout the entire bed, the best way to renew tired soil.

An iris rhizome, ready to give to a friend

Sketch up a planting plan for the bed to see how to group the plants for best effect. Oftentimes a few new plants are needed to complete the plan—either shrubs or perennials or both.

Plant the bed according to the plan and water everything all well.

Mulch the soil between the plants with six layers of newspaper and an inch of bark mulch or ground up leaves.

And finally bag up any extra plants to share with gardening friends.





2 Responses to “The Perennial Optimist”

  1. Liz D

    So happy I found this site! Now I hope I don’t lose it!
    I planted approximately 500 spring bulbs in my yard within the last 2 months (NJ). I’m questioning whether my yard will look beautiful or like a circus come spring.

    Please keep in touch!

    • Judith Irven

      I am sure your bulbs will be the envy of the neighborhood. And if a few should seem a bit out-of-place you can always move them right after they flower (while the tops are still above ground and you can see where they are growing.Every year I move some of my daffodils from inside my flower beds (where they multiply as the years go by) out to wilder spots on the property and even along the road. Enjoy your wonderful spring gift to your neighborhood (I have a few posts under that category, including daffodil pictures)


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