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Shuffling perennials gives them a second chance

Shuffling perennials gives them a second chance

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I have a twice-a-year routine dedicated to shuffling plants around in my garden. Some have been cooped up in containers, some have waited patiently in the garage for warmer weather, and others have been languishing in an area of the yard that doesn’t suit their fancy.

For better or worse, I make it a spring routine to find these plants find a permanent home — either into the ground or into the compost heap.

Find out if whispering sweet nothings to your leafy friends encourages them to grow faster.

A big part of my plant shuffle revolves around my seasonal planters. When it comes these large patio pots, I struggle with annuals. It’s not that I have a hard time cultivating petunias and begonias, but I often choose perennial plants and hardy grasses over their short-lived cousins. So when I want to pull them out and start with a blank slate, I’m faced with relocating a store of hardy plants.

At present, I have several heuchera, sedum, carex, red twig dogwood and a pile of herbs to shuffle. Planted last October, these winter planters were rock stars over the fall and winter. With colorful pansies and violas sprinkled in, these planters have only now reached their peak, as spring’s mild temperatures have helped them linger. The pansies and violas will be shuffled to the compost pile, but where to plant all the others?

The heuchera and carex will be planted in the backyard perennial beds, which get dappled sunlight all day. Both prefer a part shade permanent home, so they should thrive under the canopy of the willow oaks. The sedum and herbs prefer full sun, so I’ll transplant them into a large herb bed adjacent to the vegetable garden.

The red twig dogwoods are destined for a moist area at the bottom of a grass swale. This will be a bit of experimentation on my part, as it’s quite shady in this area. I’m confident they will establish well and be happy, but I’m curious to see if they will still produce vibrant bark color.

Year-round, I seem to have a stockpile of plants waiting in the wings — forever reminding me that there’s always one more thing to plant. This stockpile generally consists of perennial divisions, thinned bulbs and rooted cuttings from friends and colleagues favorite plants. Plant people have a way of getting their garden into the gardens of others, you know.

At the moment, my stockpile isn’t nearly as large at it usually is in mid-spring. All I currently have waiting are two pots of root-bound thyme, a rescued rosemary and a few dozen daffodil bulbs.

The bulbs will be shuffled immediately into a new bed my husband recently tilled. As for the herbs, they’re destined for this summer’s seasonal planters, and will cascade nicely down the sides of my large pots. It seems as though I’m a die-hard glutton for punishment, as I shuffle herbs out, just to shuffle more back in.

As gardeners, we toe a thin line between healthy plant cultivation and death and destruction. Of course, the goal is always fresh growth, buds, blooms and overall horticulture happiness — but, let’s face it — sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes plants don’t acclimate or thrive, ultimately leading to an untimely death. It’s important to shuffle these plants, too.

I have killed more plants than you can shake a stick at, over the years becoming immune to the heartbreak that comes with a pile of withered foliage and soggy roots. I have a clear set of instructions for every plant I bring into my garden — get happy or get moving. I uphold my end of the bargain by siting a plant as well as possible and giving regular food, water and conversation. But still, sometimes, a plant just doesn’t want to grow.

If I have a plant that doesn’t thrive, I don’t lose any sleep. I simply shuffle it to the compost pile and keep going. I’ll find something else to replace the hole it left and keep right on ticking. I suppose I’ve just lost patience over the years, and perhaps I’m turning into a grumpy gardener.

I’m not completely heartless with problem plants, though. Depending on what the plant is, I may try to shuffle it to another area of the garden. Maybe it didn’t get adequate sunlight to bloom in profusion. Maybe the voles were more active within certain beds, disrupting root development. I try to quickly assess the problem and rectify it to the best of my ability. But only to a certain extent. I may give a plant a one-time shuffle, but I know when to cut my losses.

Come fall, I’ll do another plant shuffle when I switch my planters over to winter interest. For color his summer, I have my eyes set on planting a few perennial salvia — so those will definitely be shuffled into my new pollinator garden.

I suppose I could eliminate a lot of the shuffle from my schedule if I planted more annuals, but I just wouldn’t have as much fun. My garden is thankful for the shuffle, though, as I’m constantly cultivating more perennial interest with every passing season.

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or, with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.


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