Garden Notes: The Green Moment

And dividing spring-flowering bulbs.

Green textures: Foliage plants look good all season. Solomon’s seal and lily of the valley. – Susan Safford

The Green Moment

Its approach has been impatiently awaited this year of drawn-out, bleak spring. The electric intensities of different shades of green are food for grayed-out eyes. The Green Moment’s ephemerality suggests that time and seasons are speeding past us: This weekend marks Memorial Day, and one day soon we shall awaken to summertime.

I picked the first lilies of the valley this morning, coffee cup in hand, quite late in the year for this. Numerous pressing things to do before leaving for work always exist; but the truth is, these moments, such as the first lily of the valley bouquet, a May emblem, do not wait for us to fold laundry, check email, and pay bills.

We all wish we could foretell the weather. It has been so variable recently: chilly air masses with brief summery interludes. Trying to predict the long-range summer weather is not exactly “shooting fish in a barrel.”

However, based on the spring’s weather patterns, cool, damp, and rainy might be the prevailing conditions, implying slugs, gray mold, earwigs, and pillbugs. I plan to soft-pedal mulches this year. They do what they are supposed to do: conserve moisture and lower soil temperatures — not so desirable in already cool and damp conditions.

A cool, wet summer might alter the choices for good annuals and planting containers. If we have a soggy summer, then plants on porches and protected entries have a better chance to look good. Grooming is required of petunias, fuchsias, and other soft-petaled flowering plants that collapse when wet, if the containers are in the open; but for many this grooming is a daily meditation and not burdensome.

Some tender annuals, such as New Guinea impatiens, angelonia, and smaller-flowered begonias, are self-grooming and need little cleanup. A container combo with hefty foliage plant accents, such as sweet potato vine, hypoestes, ferns, or a small shrub, has some backbone even without floral interest.


All-summer perennials

Plants in the green category have staying power. Flowers of poppies, peonies, lilies, bulbs — they all go by. Perennials with strong architecture and foliage appeal will pad out the looks of the garden. There needs to be something apart from flower color that sustains the looks of the garden all season long.

Coming to mind are the irises, both bearded and Siberian, and the foliage of peonies, astilbes, dictamnus, epimediums, and daylilies. Mounders and clumpers, phlox and salvia for instance, provide rhythm and substance. Ferns, in shady gardens, supply season-long continuity. The grays (gray-leaved plants) also support the look of full-sun gardens throughout the season: lavender, santolina, stachys, dianthus, and the dusty millers.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) is a strongly architectural plant for the perennial border. The species, Polygonatum odoratum, and its variegated forms are tall and decorative; but other cultivars and more exotic species also come in a variety of sizes and forms, including groundcover, to add elegant interest to spots where they can naturalize.

Look now at Polly Hill Arboretum; the collection contains nine species/cultivars. (Good sources of plants to buy: local garden centers, or Plant Delights Nursery ( Its catalogue helpfully notes that if Solomon’s seal is divided in spring after it emerges, it does not produce any new growth until the following spring.


In the garden

Beware! Although manufacturers dispute the results, evidence mounts that there is an association between weedkiller preparations and serious diseases, such as Parkinson’s, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

“We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world.” –Russell Libby. It is probably useless to argue that the humans are likely more harmed by pesticides and herbicides than are the targeted life forms. However, our biosphere and bodies are hosting more molecules of these toxic substances than our cells evolved for.

The rainfall has encouraged many small weeds to germinate in beds and hardscape such as walkways, driveways and peastone, and steps. It takes some diligence and the right tool, but it is not insurmountable to hand-weed them and avoid using herbicide.

An effective tool for weeds in peastone is a push-pull, or scuffle, hoe. Various tools, both manufactured and homemade, to weed brick, block, and stone paving are indispensible: sharpened screwdrivers, old kitchen knives, and purpose-made Dutch paving weeders.

Peony season means rain, and taller cultivars especially require stalking to look their best. If staking is too onerous at this busy time in the garden year, choose among many shorter-growing cultivars.

Spring-flowering bulbs’ locations eventually disappear as the foliage withers and dries off. Although the experts advise to plant in fall, in practice this only applies to new plantings. I find it impractical for established plantings that need division or to be extended; one needs to see where the other bulbs are already located. Digging the bulbs before foliage has completely disappeared is my way, and does not seem to do any harm.

The above-mentioned lily of the valley (Convallaria) is beloved and greatly appreciated when in bloom. It also makes an effective groundcover in woodsy or shade gardens, the neat lance-shaped foliage remaining good-looking through the season in the right conditions. There are several species but only one, C. majalis, is grown in gardens. Of this there are several cultivars, including pink, double-flowered, and extra large, such as ‘Fortin’s Giant.’

However, in the right conditions, lily of the valley can also be a thug. It wants to form a monoculture, its tough roots spreading below the surface and inevitably invading and weakening the crowns of other perennials. Plant lily of the valley in shrub borders or under trees; it is far better to site the plants where they can blanket the ground without neighbors, because it is a tough job to dig them out when they are unwanted.


Sakonnet, R.I., garden

The Sakonnet Garden Open Days: May 26 and 27 for its once-a-year benefit: