June 2010- In Praise of Perennials

My delphiniums are growing inches each day as they draw upward into the feast of summer sunlight. Less than a month from now I will be staking bold purple spikes of blossoms, some nearly six feet tall. Whether I am ready for the season’s changes or not, perennial flowers offer a steady reminder that the seasons come and go with or without my permission. Yet just a little attention – like an occasional watering – reaps big colorful dividends.

Two years ago, my friend, Melissa Alger, earned the “Yard of the Week” followed by the “Yard of the Year” award in Eagle River.  Her aunt, Judy Kleven, is also a superb gardener, and I had the privilege of spending two hours with them, tidying up the gardens. Their flower beds are overflowing with perennials, some of which jumped their borders to grow happily elsewhere. Little violas skipped along the gravel path like schoolgirls on a lark. We did not uproot them — their sweetness won us over. But we savaged other unruly species, like dandelion and fireweed and horsetail.

I couldn’t help wondering why certain plants are “desirable” and others are not. I had to step past my guilt tearing out the fireweed. It is a flower I love and one I cultivate in the wilder reaches of my own yard. Yet once we cleaned out the “riff-raff,” what remained were fragrant lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart blossoms, dianthus, and lamium – all in various states of gorgeous bloom.

The names of perennials themselves read like the ingredients of a magical potion, or the names of storybook characters.  Imagine the fairytale you might tell with names like “Snowdrop” and “Goatsbeard” and “Candytuft.”

What I especially enjoyed about our morning of gardening were the stories that grew up around the flowers themselves. The lily-of-the-valley in Melissa’s garden originally came from the garden of Judy’s mother in Montana.

“My mother always had a beautiful garden,” Judy said. “She shipped transplants from her garden to mine with the roots protected in a plastic bag.” Since then, the lilies have been so prolific that Judy has been able to share them with family and friends. Judy’s mother may be gone, but her legacy blooms year after year.

As a little girl, I remember hollyhocks growing on the sunny side of our house in North Dakota. My sister and I made flower dolls using a toothpick to attach a closed blossom (the head) to an open blossom (the body). We twirled our dolls with pink-petal dresses and sometimes even danced along, singing at the top of our lungs.

As for my faithful delphiniums, my son Mark helped me plant them when he was about 10 years old. I’d read in my Wise Gardening handbook that they grow best in rich top soil ideally 2-3 feet deep. So after buying the plants, Mark helped dig three-foot holes to fill with the prescribed topsoil. In our digging, we came across a rock that quickly grew from a stone – that we thought would be the size of a watermelon – into a Volkswagen-sized boulder. There was no getting rid of it without an excavator.

“Mom,” Mark said, his forehead beaded with sweat. “This rock is like Jesus. Solid and immovable.”

“Right you are,” I laughed. And we covered it up again, planting the perennials on either side of it.

That was fifteen years ago. Mark is 25 now and fighting Alaska wildfires through the summer. Next year, on scorched tundra, fireweed will bloom in the aftermath of the fires Mark is attempting to extinguish. And the delphiniums he helped to plant will bloom in the abundance of memories and light.

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