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Part way done: some perennials back in place, soil amendment continues. Photo by Martha Foley
Part way done: some perennials back in place, soil amendment continues. Photo by Martha Foley

Out with the bad: taking control of the perennial garden

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The first step can be the hardest when you've got a major Quackgrass infestation, or an "aggressive" perennial that's taking over. In Martha Foley's garden this spring, it was both. Sometimes you just have to dig everything up and start over.

Amy Ivy is a horticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension service with Clinton and Essex County. She sympathizes, and shares tips on taking advantage of the opportunity to improve the soil.

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Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Martha Foley: I was telling Todd [Moe] before the NPR newscast how I spent most of my weekend. I just cleaned out not a huge perennial patch, but it took me a long time just to get the Quackgrass out of it- it had become overrun by this lovely invasive flower that a neighbor gave me that brought Quackgrass with it and after a few years there was just a huge patch of basically Quackgrass.

Friday afternoon I took a look at it and thought "this is the end, this is it." I just started digging it up and realized I couldn't just dig that up, I had to dig everything else up because of the Quackgrass. It was going through the Iris roots- drilled right through. You just have to take everything out sometimes and it felt so good.

Amy Ivy: It's really good to tackle a section and do it really well as opposed to just dabble and pull a few here and a few there, and not really get on top of it.

MF: I had done that. I had turned a blind eye, trying to deal with the Quackgrass and this piecemeal for a couple years. It just encourages everything, I swear. So I felt like I had a new room with fresh paint and I could just start over.

AI: Yeah, it's a really nice feeling, and it's a great way to replenish your soil and it's a good time to work in compost, peat moss, rotted leaves and all the different things that can really improve your soil to the whole root zones, where the plants are going to be growing. You're going to be amazed how plants grow for the next couple of years. They're going to thrive in the wonderful loose soil.

MF: I can never find enough stuff; I threw in compost and whatever manure we still had lying around. I was getting ready to redo my porch planters, so I took all the old potting soil out of that and threw that in, I figured if nothing else, it's soil conditioner.

AI: Exactly and that's important, all that, and doing a variety is really nice too, so if people don't have their own stash of stuff around, like you and I seem to have, you can buy stuff in bags, it's relatively easy to do. But I would encourage people to get a variety. So don't get just one, you can get bags of composted cow manure. Get a bag of that and you can get a bag of some kind of compost, some peat moss, you know again that variety is really nice. Whether it be a raised bed or a garden area that you're reclaiming.

MF: I've never used peat moss, do you just buy a bale of that stuff and just work it in as you would work anything else into the soil?

AI: Exactly! I wouldn't leave it as a layer because it's different in texture and when it's dry it actually becomes hydrophobic, so it's hard to get it wet. But once it gets wet it stays damp like a sponge. It really is a wonderful amendment to the soil.

It really is a nice mixture, but blend it, and that's why this opportunity is great because you can really stir this around, whereas once in a more established perennial garden you're more limited as to what you can do. Unless you're digging up a plant. Digging up this whole zone like you're doing is the best.

MF: You know the other thing is my house is an old farmhouse, and this perennial bed happens to be over an old trash heap. I've found parts of wheels, and bricks and I knew it was there, but I just hadn't been digging that deep for a long, long time and it was very satisfying.

The other thing I need to ask you about this, is now I have all of this extra space, because I'm not putting all of that stuff—that invasive whatever it was—back in there. And really maybe I should describe it, maybe someone can tell me what it is, maybe you can. It had a ferny leaf, but it was a runner.

AI: Was it a magenta kind of flower?

MF: Yeah a magenta flower, and the flowers came off on stems from the stems, not just at the top, like what I would consider a real yarrow, but it looked like a yarrow.

AI: Yeah that yarrow tends to have a real flat top flower cluster. I'm not really sure what it is. The ferny leaf make me want to say some kind of yarrow, but I'm just not sure. But it is a good lesson learned when people tell you, you know this is going to take over. They're usually not kidding. So there are a few that are potential misbehavers. So you really have to think twice before you add them into your garden.

MF: It was so pretty and you know it still is. It was ready to bloom as I was coldheartedly ripping it out

AI: And when you're ripping it out, you are going to be taking things out that you like at the same time, you just can't help it. I used to get put off because daffodils would be in full bloom or something when I wanted to do this work, but you kind of have to sacrifice in order to get it done. So lift them, hold them, you can try to replant them, and if you end up losing a few in the process, it's still worth it in order to get it done.

MF: For me, it's the iris. They're all budded and I just had to lift a few of them out and tried to set them right back, so they're not going to get the soil amendments, but they may bloom this year, who knows.

So I have another question going along with this; I do have things in other places that I would like to move into this new space, I'm thinking primarily of a couple of bleeding hearts that have gotten crowded out by a couple of other things in other places, but they're in blossom, so can I wait until they are done blossoming and then move them?

AI: For things that are early bloomers like that, it is better to wait until after the bloom is over. And bleeding hearts, in particular, pretty die back after they have finished blooming, anyway, so that's a great time to do it. Set aside a space in your new place, and then it won't be more than a few weeks before you'll be able to move them.

MF: So should I wait until it dies back or should I just wait until it stops blooming?

AI: At least wait until the bloom is over and it's starting to do that rest-after-bloom stage. That would be the best. It would be better to do it before anything grew in the spring, but that's not always possible, so this is the next best.

MF: Well, that was a lot of work, and still not over, of course. I think a lot of people feel like we're catching up this year; we feel like we're late. Todd and I were talking about this earlier. There's so much to do, do you do the vegetables? Do you do the flowers? It's a tough choice, but then I went to the local Agway and we were talking about it at the cash, and people were saying, but it's not actually late, we're not late yet.

AI: I think gardeners get a little over-concerned about the timing of stuff. So what if it's a little bit late? If it's a perennial, maybe you won't get the optimal bloom this year, but next year it'll be great. Try not to worry too much. That's all part of the decision is which thing matters the most to you in order to decide which one you're going to work on; which plant is going to benefit the most from your attention today since you can't do them all. It's always a bit of a judgment call.

MF: Well, next for me is the vegetables, I guess. Turn my attention to the vegetable garden.

AI: That would be a good thing.

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