Gardens are planted primarily with hope and a dream for the future. Soil is prepared and enriched, tiny little baby plants are arranged with care. The second year of a garden, it starts to grow. But it is in the third year, the plants reach maturity. Not every plant from that first season is still there, some plants thrive while there are always a couple that don’t. Now, adjustments and decisions are made. Plants are moved or replaced to accommodate their environmental needs or the color scheme. But the third year, most plants in the garden have established their root systems and the garden achieves a look of fullness that can be breathtaking. Shrubs are large enough to begin providing shelter for birds, the baby plants are now robust clumps, and the color scheme has been tweaked to be just what you were hoping for.
Most gardeners expect to rest back and enjoy their efforts at this point, but their labors are just beginning. To garden is to tend, to nurture and as the garden changes, its needs do to. Often at this point, gardeners come to me and say, “I love my bee balm, but it is growing so fast! How do I stop it?” I hear this about many plants. “The books say this plant gets 2 feet wide, and mine is 4 feet wide after 4 years! The book was wrong!” Well, yes and no, you see, plants grow, they must. When plants stop growing, they start dying. A book or website will tell you the height and spread of a mature plant, so when the plant is about 3 years old in average soil. But websites don’t tell you that the plant will not stop growing when it reaches maturity. The spread of a plant is also an average. For instance, Monarda, is about 3 feet wide at maturity in most of the country. That being said, however, it is a native to New York, and Monarda is ideally adapted to most of our soil and seasonal conditions. Here, a mature plant can easily be 4 feet wide at maturity. This is the natural life of the plant, it cannot be stopped, but it can be tended and maintained.
Once maturity is reached, an aggressive plant like Monarda should be dug up and divided. This makes the clump smaller and allows the plant to continue to grow in the space allowed. This is best done in the Spring or the Fall. In Spring, when the plant is just showing new growth, the entire root clump is dug up and then cut in a way that each new clump has shoots and roots attached. In the fall, the same process is performed, but the tall plants are cut back to within a few inches of the soil first.
If you have never done this before, dig deeper than you expect and try to get as many roots as possible. Once the clump is out of the ground, it can be split up. I have an old bread knife that I use to cut apart most dense root balls. Imagine cutting a big chocolate cake. The cake is the root ball and the frosting are the little plant shoots on top. Make sure that every portion you cut gets both cake and frosting. The plant needs both its shoots and roots to live. After dividing the plant, carefully replant the pieces so that they are planted at the same depth they were planted before. Don’t bury the green part, and don’t leave the little roots exposed. Lastly, give the plants a good soaking drink of water when you are done. The easiest plants to divide are plants like Bee Balm, Shasta Daisy, and Daylily. They grow as clumps. Try to avoid moving or dividing plants that have tap roots, these are deep roots shaped like carrots. Plants with tap roots include Poppies and Orange Butterfly Weed. These plants rarely grow to the point of being too wide so they should be left to grow where they are initially planted.
It is up to the gardener to enforce a plant’s boundaries. Reducing the size of the plant is not always ideal. Sometimes, like with my lilac, I removed the smaller flowers around it and to give the shrub more room to grow. It has my permission to spread. So, I expanded its room to grow and encouraged the lilac to get huge. Big dramatic lilac bushes work in that part of the yard. The peripheral plants were just filling the space until the lilac was mature enough to be what I wanted.
Tending the garden involves constant reassessment because as long as there are flowers in your yard, it is growing and changing. Don’t let the slow, constant change cause you stress, enjoy the process, enjoy the subtle adaptions. You are building a three dimensional work of art that looks slightly different at every hour of the day. You are bringing beauty and life into an otherwise dull world and a new habitat for birds and butterflies is growing because of you.
This is a lesson we bring into other aspects of our lives as gardeners. To grow is to live. To garden is to tend. As gardeners, we constantly make small changes in our yards to cultivate the good and the beautiful; it takes patience and attentiveness, and results are magical. Every time we perform a small act of kindness or learn something new or practice a new and positive habit in our lives, we cultivate the garden of our hearts. What are some ways that you cultivate the good and the beautiful in your life?