Into a New Land

Putting down roots in a new place can be as hard for plants as for the humans who nurture them.

Being a transplant myself (my husband and I recently moved from upstate New York to Martha’s Vineyard), I am sensitive to the problems, perils, and benefits of transplantation. When we moved, I brought some of my favorite garden plants, mostly perennials and shrubs. As I dug in and cared for my green family, I worried about which ones would thrive in this new environment and whether my horticultural skills were up to the challenge. I also worried about the potential threat of introducing new vegetation to the Island. Nothing I brought was invasive, but perhaps in the sea air and abundant sunlight (neither present in upstate New York) something might suddenly run amok and take over first the garden, then beyond. I knew the story of the skunk and deer, innocently introduced, now Island pests, and bittersweet vine choking out Island trees. I resolved to be cautious but not cowardly. Introducing anything new affects not only the plant’s surroundings but the plant as well. This is exciting as well as scary.

Most of my shrubs, including a Viburnum carlesii, with its strong spicy fragrance, and Miss Kim lilac, love it here. They are vigorous and healthy. Several others, bought on-Island but moved to make way for the renovation of our house, have taken hold at last. During the ten years we rented and spent only a month or so in residence, these neglected soldiers struggled from year to year with no care. They didn’t die, but they got smaller each year. Now they have all been relocated and, finally, are well-fed and watered. This summer, the azalea I thought was a low-growing specimen shot up a good foot. The hydrangea blossomed for the first time in years and the climbing hydrangea
(a natural slow-grower) scrambled a couple of feet up the side of the garage. The trumpet vine has not bloomed, but looks healthy at last. Two low-growing Ilex crenata have filled out into glossy green mounds. I am proud of my transplants: they endured the hard years of neglect and survived.

This summer, I hope to see the front bed of rhododendrons, designed to form a screen between the road and the house, respond to all the care I have lavished on them this summer. Since rhodies do well in this acid soil, I chose them for my most challenging bed  – partial shade with sandy soil full of roots and stones. Each shrub got a bag of compost as it went in. The largest and oldest came from Syracuse; three others went in a year ago and barely made it through last winter. One was so badly eaten by deer that I pulled it out and replanted it in a protected spot to recover. I replaced it last spring and in the fall I moved in two year-old seedlings. To fill in the gaps, I planted astilbe and coral bells and a clematis to twine conventionally around the lamppost. Some of these may eventually have to be moved. I keep piling on all the compost and extra topsoil I can lay my hands on. A neighboring farm has been generous in letting us take away some composted manure. Last year, a friend brought us a load of seaweed.  Truly, this Island gives as it takes away. Nutrients run away through the sand while you work your tail off to add all the available good stuff, making more luscious meals for deer. Like old age, it is not a place for sissies.

Some years ago as part of a trip to Europe, I visited an ancient botanical garden in Padua: Hortus Botanicus. Wonderful old trees in movable pots were rolled into and out of the orangery as the season demanded. Famous scientists and writers had left instructions concerning their care and appearance. I wandered through the medicinal herbs for which this garden is famous, and came to the herbaceous borders. Having a fondness for peonies, I stopped to
examine them and noticed they were all small plants, not the tall hybrids we favor in America. They had long since bloomed (it was now midsummer) and the seed pods had ripened. Each one was split open and the seeds that had not already dispersed rested on the open pod like the vegetables you see on display in European markets. Black and shiny like slightly elongated peas, they seemed to be saying, Take me, please.

So I collected half a dozen and carefully wrapped them in a Kleenex. Permesso? I asked one of the gardeners, showing him the seeds.

Certo, Signora, he smiled.


I carried my Kleenex packet back to upstate New York and planted the seeds in the cold frame. My favorite reference book on shrubs – Flowering Shrubs & Small Trees, by Isabel Zucker and Derek Fell (Michael Friedman Publishing Group Inc., 1990, 287 pages) – told me it might take several years for the seeds to break dormancy, even after being subjected to the cold stratification of winter. Such seeds need a period of after-ripening in which chemical changes take place that eventually allow them to germinate. Since I did not know how my seeds would behave, I could only wait
and see.

The next spring, nothing happened, so I went about my seasonal business in the garden and waited. The following spring, four of the seeds sprouted leaves. I clucked around them all summer like a mother hen, and in the fall, decided to leave them in the cold frame for another winter. The next summer, I moved the plants to a perennial bed, but none bloomed. The following year – now five years since our original meeting in Padua – I got my first blossoms. One of the four plants produced pale pink, single, petalled flowers with yellow centers. I was thrilled.

In their new home in West Tisbury, my peonies have produced abundant foliage but no flowers. My son who lives in McLean, Virginia, took one plant and reported casually that it had red blooms this past summer. I cannot quite believe him – it seems too unfair. He’s not a gardener, and red flowers on these small herbaceous peonies would be quite rare. But then who ever said life was fair?

In July I gave my peonies their last feeding of the year, even though they were losing their leaves and becoming dormant. In late fall, I mulched them with compost for the winter. If they reward me with blooms this summer, their third in their new home, I will showcase them – maybe even give them a bed of their own. During the cold dark months of winter, I dreamed of seeing pink and even red blossoms in June. I knew it would be a risk to attempt to raise these plants from seed and then move them to a new temperature zone with a different climate and different soil. I think of my gardening style as hard work combined with the laying on of hands. Even though the product is a tangible object – dirt, leaves, and flowers – a creative jolt is needed to make it beautiful.

If they do not bloom, I will have to make some hard choices. I can move them in midsummer to another location and put super-phosphate around the roots, giving them one more chance. Or I could decide to cut my losses, as I have done recently with the hostas. The deer like them too much – more than I do – so I tossed a couple of well-pruned clumps onto the compost pile. A gardener has to be merciless – patient but merciless. Otherwise, you betray that creative jolt. But carrying my peonies to the compost would be like taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. This spring, I still have my dreams.