Renewing the garden - involuntarily

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

We have been going through our perennial plants this week, editing out those damaged by the last late spring freeze. There are hundreds of Pom Pom primroses, astilbes, and bleeding hearts, and many others less common. They were already emerging from dormancy due to the mild winter when that 6-degree weather swept in like an avenging angel and passed the withering sword over the beds.

Some of these plants will recover; they will sprout again from roots and in a few years be large enough to bloom again. Their big main crown is dead, but the tenacious characters of these hardy perennials have other survival skills. The tips of the roots will form new crowns, they will begin swelling, new growing points will form along the root itself, and the result will be a colony of primroses where there was only one. These perennial plants do not only come back after winter, many seem to come back from the grave.

I am awestruck by the energy and survivability of the root-based world; disasters pass over them like thunderstorms and they recover. Gradually small plants will reenter the aboveground world. Using stored energy in their roots to form new growing points and harvesting the power of the sun with their new leaves, they rebuild reserves in time for the next winter.

Roots of power are what these things have. It is particularly apt that the bare- root perennials are pouring into the nurseries this time of the year, too. Boxes of big root divisions of these favorite flowering plants are arriving from field growers. The plants are just emerging from their dormancy and are ready to make their new lives in a new place. These peonies, irises, bleeding hearts and hostas have been lifted and divided into chunks. Their tops were not yet up; they were in deep sleep during the process, and now they will find themselves in a whole new setting.

These species are immigrants, following the old pattern of migrating species. They are emulating the passage of the plants that came before them: the roses carried from a miners home in Connecticut, the big black willows downtown on 10th Street, and the acres of "wild phlox" or "Dames Rocket" that fill the hills of old Juneau. Some other gardener treasured these fragrant pink and lavender blooms and the seeds were slipped into an envelope and mailed across the world to some local flower fancier.

Seeds, roots and now live plants are sent across the continents, and we become agents of dispersal. We love them, and they let us. It is a mutualism of the first level: They give us pleasure and we encourage their increase. We introduce our friends and neighbors to them and send offsprings of our plants to these new hosts. We have seasonal social events, such as the big plant sale of the Master Gardeners, 4-H, Garden Club and Primrose Society.

These are like revival meetings for the devotees and initiates alike, and everybody takes something home.

The reason perennial gardening is so apt for our climate is obvious when you look at our native flora. We have a few species of trees and shrubs - maybe 20 or 30 all together. There are virtually no annuals here but there are thousands of native perennials. The wetlands and shore plants that spend the winter as underground people, the alpine plants that hibernate through the cold, and the forest floor populations that vanish as the light grows short.

They grow larger during the off season and emerge in springtime with dozens of new crowns where before there was only one. Strawberries, Salmon berries, skunk cabbage and false Solomon's Seal all thrive in the rich humus layers of the wild world. Lilies, wild geraniums and native primroses join fireweed, lupine and monkshood each year as masses of perennial roots burst up with this incredible force. Pulling up the layers of vegetation from underground sleeping-places and cloaking the world in green again, they come. Perennial plants have resources to avoid winter stress by getting very slow, shedding all aboveground exposed parts and waiting for better days.

This pattern fits our gardens, too, as we fill our beds with plants selected for sequential bloom and complimentary color. We set dark purple "Black Knight" delphinium with bright raspberry pink "Granaat" astilbe, and clear white oriental lilies. We know they will bloom together for years, creating a delightfully colorful combination season after season. Perennial gardens fit the natural cycle.

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