Perennials will forgive this season of neglect

Family Matters

October 10, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

My youngest child has left for college and friends keep asking how things are in the empty nest, and I tell them that my garden is getting better every day.

My flowerbeds had been on their own this summer. There had been the illness and death of my children's grandmother, and their departures for college had turned my house for weeks into what looked like the staging area for a military campaign.

I vaguely remember sprinkling some coffee grounds around the roses in early June, but nothing after that.

When I returned to my flowerbeds after this summer of neglect, they were equal parts overgrown and diseased. It turns out that plentiful rain is as good for deadly spores as it is for weeds. And leftover hurricane winds did their own brand of damage in the late summer, ripping through the trees overhead, carelessly scattering branches large and small.

The lettuces grew rangy and went to seed and flopped over. They are tangled with the weeds in the vegetable garden now. The tomatoes succumbed to blight without a fight from me. The herbs were eaten to the ground by bugs. If there were clematis blossoms, I never saw them. A hydrangea died, I think from loneliness.

I am one of those gardeners for whom those to-do calendars are made, one of the gardeners who checks the weekly garden tips in the newspaper to make sure I am not behind in my garden chores.

I feed, mulch, trim, cut back and deadhead on schedule, like someone who never misses her six-month appointment at the dentist. But I can't begin to count the gardening steps that I missed this summer.

My bible is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (Timber Press, 1998, $29.95)

Along with a wealth of planning and planting information, she gives gardeners like me careful instructions and timetables for pruning for health, height control and attractiveness, as well as for delayed or repeat blooming.

My sedum, asters and mums would look denser and more attractive right now if I had been able to cut them back through July as the author suggests. The candytuft and the phlox will show the effects next spring, I expect, because I had no chance to cut them back after blooming this year.

The coneflowers clustered by my front porch would not be flopping all over the steps if I had been able to trim them to two different heights throughout the summer as she recommends. And I'll bet I would have gotten a second bloom from the salvia if I had only had time to trim it after the first flowers faded.

DiSabato-Aust not only records garden maintenance by season, including a chapter on pruning for winter and pruning for spring, and by month, but she also includes an encyclopedia of perennials that gives individual pruning and maintenance instructions for each plant, including ornamental grasses.

She provides this disclaimer in her introduction, "This book is intended to help gardeners experience success with their perennials by providing knowledge for how to properly care for them. It is not a book about enslaving the gardener or about a neatnik, regimented approach to creating a garden void of any seed-heads or dying foliage."

Even so, her attention to detail is meticulous. Her suggestions are based on her own experimentation with technique or on the advice of other experts. There are plenty of before and after pictures.

The book runs counter to the goal of many perennial gardeners, which is maintenance-free flowerbeds without the dirty work required by annuals. But, as I learned this summer, perennial is not synonymous with self-sustaining. Perennial means that the flowers are forgiving enough to come back year after year to give you a chance to do better.

Kind of like children.

Friends keep asking how things are in the empty nest, and I tell them that it had been getting emptier every year of my daughter's high school years, as her circle of friends and activities expanded.

This summer, she simply flitted through my days, her red-orange hair flying, like a beautiful dragonfly in the garden - sparkling but never landing.

It is fall now; she and the dragonflies are gone. But I expect both to return next summer with the perennials, when I am in my garden again, doing all the chores that didn't get done in this year of transitions.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.