One gardener's observations, discoveries and random thoughts whilst simultaneously worshipping and dallying in a Cape Cod garden. "A garden," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is like those pernicious machineries which catch a man's coatskirt or his hand, and draw in his arm, his leg and his whole body to irresistable destruction."

A November Project


Here’s that Christmas cactus, in full bloom in the kitchen window.   It seems a little unlikely, since it bloomed in March last year, but it could be the poor thing’s a bit confused, schedule-wise, as it was possibly forced to be in bloom for last year’s holiday season.  Anyway, maybe after this bloom it will settle down into an annual cycle, but if it continues to bloom more than once a year, I can’t say I see any problem with that.


As is often the case hereabouts, we have been gradually working our way into the winter season, in a way that seems almost like a saw working its way into a tree trunk.   We’ve had cycles of cool – cold even – rainy weeks (although still no hard frost yet), with glimpses of sunshine and nicer temperatures in between to tease us…or perhaps to gentle us into the cold and dim reality of the winter months ahead.

Whatever.  The upshot is that we’ve had some nice bits of weather here lately, to temper the more traditionally seasonal aspects.  There’s been sunshine for walks with visiting friends and I’m happy to say that Mister Purr and I have been averaging a short catwalk almost once a week or so, which has been fun.   These past two days – with temps in the  high 60s and then today, low 70s – have been delightful and perfect for the gardening plan I had in mind, but not until I’d manage to schedule in some nice long prowls around the property for my otherwise housebound pal.


The project I had in mind was about irises.  Particularly these stunningly beautiful antique irises that appear magically out of the overgrown bed against the front foundation of our house.   I have it on good authority that these irises have probably not been divided in twenty or thirty years.


While I’m always happy to have a new poster child for Benign Garden Neglect, it’s still a good idea to dig up irises a little more frequently than this to keep them from getting crowded and unhealthy.  Not to mention being able to spread them around a little more and propagate such a fantastic variety.

I’ve been thinking about this project for a while.   Irises can be safely divided after they’ve bloomed each year.  However, since they usually finish blooming about the time the summer’s heat starts to show up for real, it’s often less stressful to wait on dividing iris tubers until the cooler days of August.   And I’ve been thinking about these guys since about that time, but for a variety of reasons, hadn’t gotten around to  properly motivating myself  and finding the proper amount of free time to take on the project.


So yesterday, with golden sunshine everywhere, some coffee under my belt and the Gray Catsby satisfied with a nice long walkabout, I gathered up my garden tools, put on some old clothes and started digging.   This long bed held primarily two kinds of plants:  these irises, and the traditional orange daylilies you see pretty much everywhere around here come summertime.

Being more shallow-rooted, I tackled the iris end of the bed first, using my long-handled garden rake to tease the clumps of irises out of the ground.   It wasn’t such tough work, particularly, though pretty interesting.   In many places, the tubers were piled on top of each other under ground, with two and three layers of them.


The bottom layer was dead more often than not and apparently fueling the upper levels of the tubers as they decayed.  Kind of a creepy, cannibalistic vibe going on there, but I can’t fault such a beautiful plant for any means it might stoop to to ensure its survival.  But even with some of the tubers hollow and dead, there was a great abundance – two pickle buckets full by the time they were all up and I piled them off to the side.

I wanted to give them some attention before replanting, and anyway, I still had the daylilies to face and this time of year, the shorter days always give a gardener a sense of working against the clock.  I knew the daylilies might be a little more complicated, with their deeper, more aggressive, root systems.  In this part of the bed, there were also lots of little wild onion bulbs and a few plants of deadly nightshade which I was hoping to eradicate, or at least minimize, in this particular bed, so that meant working a little more carefully, too.   (It’ll also mean remaining vigilante for new seedlings of both come next spring, of course.  No job’s ever that simple.)


In working with the daylilies, I was quickly reminded of Mickey and the Broomsticks in Fantasia, as they seemed to keep multiplying with every inch the sun slid further into the western sky.


I’ll admit I was getting a little tired, as it had already been a long and tiring weekend, but I was enjoying the digging, which was not as slow-going as it sometimes can  be.  Plus, I was enjoying the lovely afternoon outside and starting to  really imagine what this bed could look like next year.

I was glad that the work had been fairly easy so far, since one of the later things I needed to do was to dig out the hydrangea you see below for relocation.   When it was much smaller, it was planted pretty close to the front door and also to the foundation.  Now that its grown larger, it needed a little more room to grow, without it feeling like it was crowding our front entrance.


It was just a matter of about two feet worth of move, but this was still the most strenuous part of the day for me.   It went well, but left me breathless and I did wisely take a little time to rest after the bush was shifted before jumping back into the fray.

You can see in this pic the hydrangea’s new location, as well as the replanting of the daylilies.  I decided to replant many of the divisions on long diagonal lines throughout the bed, so that when you look at them from a distance, they’ll appear to fill the whole bed when in bloom.   The irises, to be planted in corresponding stripes, should have the same effect when they bloom a few weeks earlier.  For a little additional interest in other parts of the season, I also added in some honesty (money plant) seedlings and a few divisions of shasta daisy.   To season the bed, I also sprinkled around a variety of coneflower and coreopsis seeds.   We’ll see what comes of all that.


It turned out it was very smart of me to take those moments to catch my breath after the bush move, since I enjoyed a whole fresh set of heart palpitations and breathlessness when I turned around and spotted THIS damn thing on the ground by my feet.  No doubt the shriek I couldn’t hold back echoed up and down the neighborhood.   I knew it was plastic right off, but it still took me about fifteen minutes more to recover from that enough to even snap a photo of it.

The Downstairses assured me – when they returned from their walk –  that this was not part of some plan to kill the Gardener and re-rent the Nest to someone with more dough (although I thought I saw a glimmer of “Hmmm, interesting idea, though.” in Mister D’s twinkling eyes) but was, in fact, a sort of time-release prank.

The spider, it turns out, had been planted long ago to gaslight the previous tenants, but the gag had sort of fizzled and been forgotten.   Apparently it lurked in the garden for years and was shook free from the hydrangea when I moved it.  Instead of bothering the girls who no longer live here, it gave me a case of shivering fits instead.   Weeee!

When I’d fully recovered from all that and finished working on the garden layout, I found that I still had enough daylilies for another impressive stand somewhere else and quickly decided on a bit of earth not far from our roadside mailbox.  Not only is this a somewhat barren part of the yard in need of some flowering, but also, it’s right under a streetlamp, which meant I could actually continue digging for a little longer, rather than throw in the towel for the night and leave the daylilies unplanted ’til morning.



Morning found me enjoying coffee and crystal-borne rainbows in the living room upstairs, where I sorted through all the iris divisions, cutting off the dead hunks of tuber still attached to the younger, healthier ones.  Additionally, I cut off any long foliage remaining from the summer (always cutting at a sharp angle, so water can’t gather on the raw cut edge after replanting) and then trimmed back the long thready root hairs for easier replanting.


By the time I was finished with that – it didn’t take more than an hour – I had two such baskets like the one pictured above…and off I went to get them replanted into those stripe formations I mentioned.


Most of them fit into the allotted space…and another new space.   But there’s about a dozen small tubers  which I still need to sink into another (as yet undetermined) part of the yard.  Plus, I saved aside a few to share with a couple of friends.

To expand a little further on the varying seasonal interest for the bed, I finished things up this afternoon by digging in some spring bulbs.  I found a fun color blend of grape hyacinths which I think will be very pretty by the front door, which I planted with some daffodils.   A few more daffodils were planted around the foot of the Fritillaria Imperialis, and then I added a couple small drifts of these pretty purple snow crocuses.

Now all that remains is to sit back as rains and cold Canadian air move down over our region…and dream about what the bed will look like when spring comes back again.



Comments on: "A November Project" (7)

  1. I need you to come up and do my iris bed too. I’m askeerd of doing it.

    Hmmmm. Perhaps we can work something out…but you shouldn’t be afraid of irises. Maybe I need to do a more detailed, step-by-step, blog post.

  2. Wow! I’m exhausted reading about your efforts. I need a mint julep. I eagerly await the spring awakening to see the fruits of your labor.

    I would have joined you in your scream upon seeing that “toy.” Ye gads, I hate those things, even in plastic. I hope you put it in the trash.

    Actually, now that I know it exists, the spider-thing doesn’t bug me at all. In fact, we’ve given it a place of honor in the garden by the door…where it will no doubt spook visitors (and perhaps someday, future tenants) for years to come. : ) I promise I’ll put it away when you let me know you’re coming to visit, though!

  3. My back aches just reading about all that bending and lifting work. I know it’ll be worth it come spring. I might get out and do that bulb thing myself this weekend. It’ll be a good distraction from the homework I have to do.

    Mr. Purr is looking regal, as usual. Glad he’s gotten a few more walks in before the bitter cold of winter.

  4. I have this really bad looking wildflower garden that I’ve allowed to go somewhat primal. I have a few plants that I intentionally planted in it, but the rest of the plants have migrated into the garden from other sources. My favorite wildflowers are my Blue flag iris, which will need to be dug up and taken care of before transplanting. I also have some daylilies that need to be taken out but I’m afraid that in the process my ferns might get damaged. Any ideas?

    Charles, one of my first “grown-up” garden projects was something my Mom and I called An Amnesty Garden (we decided to let pretty much anything grow there) which your wild patch reminds me of. We’d started it as a place to put some wildflowers rescued from a new construction site, but really only dug holes for those, without removing what was already there. Eventually I weeded out most of the grasses, but it became a sort of catch-all for all sorts of plants, with leftover seeds and bulbs and roots finding their way in there.

    Ferns are a little tricky to work around, depending on what sort they are. Often their roots run at some length underground, so it might be wise to work on this bed late next season, when the ferns still have foliage showing which are attached to the roots to help you identify them as keepers, as opposed to roots of other, less desirable things. I’d probably remove the more easily identified things like the iris and daylily first, and excavate the ferns. If they are all grown together (ferns and daylilies are a lovely combination together), then you might just work at carefully loosening the soil all around the area with a handfork or some similar tool.

    Once you’ve got all the plants you want to keep out of the bed (keep them in the shade while you work,s o they don’t dry out too much) you can go to town about tilling the soil and removing all the unwanted plant stuff. Actually, plant roots are often fairly hardy and I’ve treated many of them somewhat roughly (tho ferns I do often give a little special care to…when you replant, try to work some wood chips or bark into the soil for them); as long as you water them in well once they are transplanted, they should be fine.

  5. I have so much to learn from you! Marigolds are ready any time. Come on by and show me what to do with them.

    Yay! Storage ’til February or so sounds like the right plan. I’ll try to stop by this week!

  6. Just one day’s work? Really? Wow. I’m impressed. The irises will thank you over their next 40 years, and it looks like you’ve assemble a bed that’ll look great much of the year, starting with the grape hyacinths. Now you have a few months’ worth of expectation to sit out until the garden starts to fill in your master plan. It’ll be worth the wait!

    And with the shortening daylight, not even a full summer day, either, James! I did finish the replanting the next morning, but the goal was to have it all done before that second day’s massage appointment, so I could just enjoy how I felt when that was done!

  7. Salina Inzaghi said:

    oh dear..the spider’s scary even in your photo…i would’ve shrieked the leaves off the trees if i were you *lol*

    Until you had suggested this, Salina, I was assuming the wind had brought our leaves down. Now I’m not so sure. ; )

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