“Gardening is not work if you love it” is a sentiment expressed with conviction by newcomers who have yet to turf out a tangled 10-year-old flowerbed for renovation (and uttered wistfully by long-timers, as if saying might make it so).
And up to a point it’s true: a garden returns rewards in spades (so to speak), but there is no getting away from a fair bit of bending, stooping and crawling, some heavy lifting and a steady workout for wrists, arms, shoulders and back. Without intervention, plants flop or run amok, weeds and insects have their way and chaos rules. But there are ways to ease the effort and lighten the load.
Easy lifting (and division)
Lifting large, heavy, well-anchored perennials out of the ground for division is a potential back-buster. Clay soil can compound the difficulty. Reduce the work by concentrating on growing smaller, lightly rooted varieties and ones that can stay in place for decades.
For shade, Siberian bugloss, primroses, heucheras, lungworts, smaller hardy geraniums and ferns are fairly easy to handle. When and if they need to be divided or moved, a hand fork or compact, long-handled spading fork can pry them out of the ground without strain. Slow to increase, elegantly arching Solomon’s seal may never need attention; plant the cream-edged variegated version and you’ve done your garden a lasting favour. Hostas and hellebores are heavyweights, but both stay put for many years.
In sun, a handful of perennials can be left undisturbed, perhaps for the life of your garden. My partner, John Scanlan, and I have peonies heading into their third decade without a sign of decline. The same goes for gas plant and false indigo, both beautiful, though uncommon, mid-border plants, while goatsbeard lasts for ages and wants nothing more than a fall cutting.
It’s best to situate these plants carefully right from the start, or move them (if you must) within three years. Shallow-rooted, sun-loving perennials that are quite easy to lift out of the ground include columbines, lambs’ ears, tickseed, Echinacea and Rudbeckia.
For edging or rock gardens, perennial candytuft is extremely long-lived, and in 30 years of gardening, we have had little work with rock cress, aubretia, most pinks, creeping phlox and catmints, beyond occasionally reining in their spread and scissoring them back after flowering.
Daylilies are incredibly useful in the landscape and are mercifully long-lived, but lifting an old clump may get the better of an older back. If you want divisions, it’s much easier to leave the whole thing in the ground, slice into it carefully with a sharp flat spade and extract a pie-shaped wedge or two. Fill in the resulting hole with good soil and compost, and your mother plant will carry on without setback. In spring, just as new growth is showing, is by far the best season to do this dig-in division.The same technique can be used to propagate or renew hostas, sneezeweed, phlox, larger sedums, fall asters, astilbes, ornamental grasses and other bulky, clumping plants.