Serendib Garden Journal: Transplanting

I feel like I’m finally moving from a beginner gardener to an intermediate one, along with my garden, which is five years old this May and started to look not entirely spotty. A lot of what I’m doing these days isn’t adding new plants, but moving and tending the ones I have — pruning back shrubs to better shapes, rearranging plants that are in not-ideal locations.

Today I dug up and divided one of my Walker’s Low nepeta, a low shrubby plant with lots of blue flowers that last forever, which I like a lot, but I planted it too close to the walk and also it’s gotten big enough that I think I can get two healthy plants out of it now. I haven’t done this before (dividing perennials), and I was clumsy with my cuts and ended up sort of dividing it into a third and two-thirds, instead of in half, but I think that’s okay. Have now plopped it back in the ground, and hope it survives in both places. Free plant, whee!

Also moved two hellebores, which I’d planted too close to the first hellebore I put in the ground; I hadn’t realized how big they’d get, and the first one is now a solid two feet across and was totally shading the other two out. Hopefully they’ll be happier and flourish in their new homes.

Planted three groundcover veronica (Tidal Pool), feeling virtuous because I have been such a slacker about planting groundcover up until now. Also nine (!) groundcover lamium: Red Dragon, Pink Pewter, and White Nancy. Their silvery leaves should nicely light up a shady path leading to the backyard. Also planting three May Night salvia in the hellstrip — it’s a rarely watered spot, but salvia is hopefully drought-resistant enough to survive in that location. The periwinkle is doing fine there.

I need to go pick up the kids soon, but when I come back, I’ll be figuring out where to add six Caesar’s Brother irises — I have three already, and love them to death, because they’re tall and blue and elegant and make big clumps over time and their thin spiky green leaves look good for months. Also on the task list for today or tomorrow is moving some of the scilla — I dumped it in the ground somewhat randomly last fall, and now there are big clumps in some places and bare dirt in others, and I think we can do better than that. If I dig them up and move them while they’re in the green, it’s much easier to see where they’ll look good, and even if they suffer a little in the transplant process, they should come back strong (and spreading) next year. Fingers crossed!

A lot of pleasant work, a little hope, and a willingness to redo it if I get it wrong. Luckily, gardens are remarkably forgiving.

Serendib garden journal: Snow

If you know any Chicagoans, you’ve probably heard them complaining about our recent weather. It’s not just been a long winter, which we’ve had before — it’s a weird one. For a day, we’ll think it’s spring — last week, temperatures climbed up to 70 degrees. And then it storms, or hails, or, like last night, it snows. There’s a certain terror to snow in April for a Chicago gardener — all those fragile little pink buds clinging tightly to the trees. If they freeze now, we won’t have peaches this summer. It makes you want to run around throwing blankets over the trees.


I’ve been pushing the temperature bounds in my garden since I started. Safe planting date (after the danger of frost has completely passed) in Chicago is mid-May, which is actually an improvement from the bad old days, when it was the end of May. We’ve also shifted a zone, from 5b to 6a. That’s climate change — terrible for the world overall, but with some pleasant side effects for Chicago gardener. Regardless of the date, I can never wait as long as we’re supposed to, so I start planting as soon as the ground is soft enough to work, and then I cross my fingers and hope that we don’t get a hard frost.

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Last night’s snow wasn’t too bad, thankfully. The daffodils came through unscathed, as did all the little bulbs, including the muscari that just pushed their way up. The buds on the trees are fine; the redbud is going to burst out into bloom any minute now. The only flowers that seem to have suffered are my hyacinths — many of them went prostrate with the weight of snow, and are only slowly recovering in the warmth of the sun. A few snapped their thick watery stems, and I’ve gathered them up and brought them in to stick in a glass — they’ll scent my kitchen for the next few days.


There’s only so much a gardener can do, against the big actions of nature. Tend to the little flowers, brace and mulch what you can, don’t plant *too* early, or you’ll pay the price. Nature can be coaxed along, but if you try to stand firm against her, she’ll bowl you over.


As for the big changes — well, I might enjoy a little extra warmth in Chicago, and my garden does too, but enough is enough. The careful gardener recycles her plastics (and tries not to buy too many of them to begin with), goes organic with the fertilizer, plants plenty of natives, and votes for representatives who actually pay attention to what we’re doing to the planet.  I think we’re getting close to the limits of what she can take.

Serendib garden journal: Chionodoxa, hyacinths, forsythia

I know I said last week was the best week in my garden, but I think it’s actually this week. Or possibly the one after that. Asking a gardener to choose a favorite week is like asking a reader to name her favorite book — cruel, and unnecessary. Each week brings its own sweet glories — in this particular case, glory-of-the-snow, also known as chionodoxa. Sometimes this pale blue spring ephemeral blooms with snow on the ground, but Chicago is having a warm end-of-winter, so there’s no snow in sight. 

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There are, however, still quite a few white snowdrops, and blue scilla abounding, along with newly emerging hyacinths — this particular variety is marketed as berries-and-cream. One of my daughter’s middle names is Jacintha, after my mother, and I’ve always told her that hyacinths are *her* flower, so it’s special for us when they finally emerge in the garden. Tip: If you dig up or pick just one, and leave it closed in a powder room, it will fill the room with intoxicating scent.


The hellebores are going strong, and though I must lie prone on the garden path to photograph them, I don’t mind. This is the season for paying attention to small delights, a time to feel grateful for every drop of color brightening the grey-brown landscape.

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The periwinkle (vinca minor) is blooming, as it did in the woods outside my parent’s house in Connecticut — I have a good patch going now, a carpet of tiny purple stars, and am hoping it will continue to spread and spread. More groundcover = fewer weeds!


Also planted in part for nostalgia value, my sole forsythia bush — my parents have a row of them separating their house from their neighbors’; I can’t spare the room for so many, but I did want to have at least one. I like the pop of bright yellow against the deep blue of our garage, joining the daffodils which are just emerging.

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I am making notes for what I’d like for next year — more of everything, essentially, though we’ll see what the budget allows. I put them in the online shopping cart, but wait to actually buy. I am impatient, and though many of these will spread slowly over time, the garden still has too many large brown patches for my taste. But more snowdrops now will mean fewer hostas later. It is a dilemma.

Sweeps of color will come, eventually. For now, we’ll enjoy the little clusters, here and there, and the leaves leafing out on the roses, and the tight buds on the redbud tree. As soon as I’m over this wretched cold, it’ll be time to start preparing the vegetable beds; we’re hoping to do it properly this time, for the first time since moving in here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Garden puttering….

Garden puttering. Cleaned out potting bench and indoor shelf. Transplanted some creeping charlie into hellstrip -- only did about a quarter of the strip, may mix it up with something else in the middle (sweet woodruff, perhaps), and then more charlie on the other side -- pondering. Pulled first dandelions of the season -- I like them fine in a far away field, not in my garden. Dug out some crab grass, and poisoned the burdock. I know, I know, but I used a very tiny, focused amount of poison just on the burdock leaves directly, and it's right next to the road, so very far away from the back yard where we grow our veggies. Last year's digging efforts completely failed at containing the burdocks -- I have cried mercy, and surrendered. I am trying to learn to love the maintenance tasks -- they are not as immediately glamorous as putting in flowers, but they do give long-term satisfaction. It's awfully nice looking out at a patch of dandelion-free ground, even if you know that pleasure will not last. But I'm going to put some mulch down shortly, which should help!