Journeys in The Garden

It’s moving time here in the garden. With every walk down the pathways, every pass beneath the trees, the list of travelers grows. Placed at the top of the list is our Acer japonica aconitifolia, the peacock maple. For the fourth consecutive year, it leafed out only to offer its tender green leaves as virginal sacrifices to a late spring frost. Then as usual, it spent the summer looking unkempt, kind of pinched and needy. Instead of dazzling with its promised “amazing fall colors”, it fizzles in shades of toast and drab. Out into the early morning this summer before the heat suffocated both body and soul, I roamed the garden on the lookout for the Peacock’s new resting place. There’s no room in Kim’s garden, and it’s still too exposed across the creek next to the purple bench. Its spreading branches too beautiful to be hidden, it deserves to be, at least, a minor focal point.

Years ago on a muggy mountain morning in late July, I looked down on a fully mature, newly transplanted peony plopped down in its hole by my chain-smoking buddy and neighbor. Lipping a cigarette, fist propped on one skinny hip, she said, “Oh, I just move stuff all the time, anytime. Just have my hole dug and ready.”

Fortunately for my pride, I kept my book-educated opinion to myself. When we had to leave our Blue Ridge valley, the peony was still thriving, along with the Hydrangeas, the junipers, the Viburnums she’d moved when they got in the way of her next big project.

And a peony, barely discernible among the weeds and sycamores, was the first plant I moved in this garden. Far distant from our old farmhouse, she crouched on a precipice overlooking a monster-sized culvert, put in by the previous owner to ford a three-foot wide creek. A legacy from the first gardener here, she graced the dooryard of a cabin now long gone. I lugged the peony, rootball dangling, across the creek and into the sunshine on a lovely morning in May. Possibly the old double pink ‘Eudilis Superba’, she’s still doing well more than a decade later.

The exodus that almost broke our backs, along with our spirits, was the hoisting of a six-foot tall, five-foot wide dogwood that was definitely not ‘Lustgarten’s Weeping.”

After that we perfected our method – first, dig the receiving hole, then go back and double its width. Water the transient tree or shrub deeply. Employ a tractor and a long rope and a driver who knows the meaning of the words “gently, slowly and stop!” Wrap the tree, tie the rope and holler “Yo”, then throw yourself between moving object and destination, maneuvering around all other botanical obstacles. Lift with tractor bucket and carry the pampered plant to its new abode. Keep roots and leaves hydrated.         

That’s how we relocated a six-foot tall, ten-feet wide weeping Prunus ‘Shidare Yoshino’ – size not properly researched on my part, or not properly labeled on someone else’s – that had grown far too intimate with the tin-topped, stucco “Ruin” we use to shelter garden tools.

This year the list for migration grows ever longer. Seventeen years in one garden makes a mockery of the ten-year rule beloved of plant labels. The ‘Yadkin Creeper’ Chinese Fringe Tree I planted in a beautiful cobalt fluted pot a few years back has, as they say here in our neck of the woods, been a real show-out. It now blocks the view outside the library window as I write these words. And as lovely as it is, it needs its space, and I need the perspective beyond. Tilted and cut out of its home, using my gardener’s machete, it will be relocated a few yards away sunk into the earth steps away from the greenhouse.           

Same for an Acer ‘Radiant’ residing now in a large cast stone urn. Its branches scrape the antique French windows in the kitchen every time a storm blows out of the west. I’m still walking around, gazing into the distance, waiting for inspiration as to where its next home might be. In the afternoon shade of one of the groves of bald cypress, perhaps, but the trouble is the cypress trees keep getting bigger and bigger, expanding to cover a lot more territory than I anticipated. But oh, they are beautiful and elegant, like the Coco Chanel’s of the woodland kingdom. So how far away do I plant ‘Radiant’? Too far and she’ll wash out from too much sun. Too close and it’s just a matter of time before she’ll have to up roots again.

And then there’s Cercis canadensis ‘White Water’. For the third summer running, her milk-splashed, pale green leaves are full of shot holes. Located in more open ground bathed in morning light with the purple bench and a Camellia sasanqua – variety unknown – for company, maybe she’ll feel safer, more appreciated.

Thinking I’d finished with the listing of all my unhappy, wrongly placed tree and shrub community, I headed to the greenhouse this morning, side-stepping around a Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ with aspirations of being the only prima Dona on the path and caught sight of the ever faithful, never complaining, neglected step-sister, Punica granatum ‘California Sunset’ standing in the shadow of ‘Gibraltar’s’ increasing girth. I’ll return her to a place in the sun where she might once again bloom.

But before all that, before Acers cross the creek seeking home and Pomegranates travel to sunnier climes, I’ll move a Hellebore swamped Pulmonaria, a sulky Acanthus, a stunted Fatsia japonica ‘Spider Web’, a handful of Hostas, a half dozen oak leaf Hydrangeas, growing in the cracks between the brick border of Kim’s Garden, and as always as many Hellebore seedlings as I have time for. Lastly, I’ll uproot the six boxwoods grown to maturity, hampered and shaped by neighbors too near for comfort. I’ve set five gallon buckets to mark their final destination. As I look at the stand-ins, they seem to shadow the sometimes halting, often stumbling footsteps along the path of my life. Talk about symbolism. They progress westward toward the setting sun, and eternity, and to me represent all the questions of these last long years, still unanswered.

Japanese Maple in all its Glory