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Lasting lessons learned on brief stroll through garden

People have personal rituals for enjoying their gardens. Some sit or walk in the garden after work or after dinner. For me, it's often midmorning, when I take a break from e-mail and writing, before preparing for a job or an appointment.

Although I can't start gardening then, I can look and think -- and maybe pull a few weeds. It was such a pleasure doing that one recent day, dog leash in one hand and coffee cup in the other, strolling around the beds, as the first bit of warmth peeked through a cloudy sky. These are my late April observations, perhaps similar to your own.

>Satisfying arrivals

Certain plants are an absolute joy as they show themselves in spring -- exuberant, irrepressible, as if shouting "Hello!"

Sorbaria sorbifolia (there's no good common name for this shrub) is eager and bold, both the 6-foot variety and the shorter cultivar, 'Sem.' The first deciduous shrub to leaf out, its ferny foliage is already colorful with pinkish tones. It's a wonderful plant for a hedgerow, windbreak or specimen where there is some room to spread; it does sucker.

The other most enthusiastic plants are perennials. Hellebores (aka Lenten roses) are the first blooming perennial -- many flowering from February on -- and mine are now blooming with creamy white or wine colors. Everyone should have these easy, long-lived plants (that deer don't eat), especially in shady gardens.

The new ones -- oh, that 'Pink Frost' with burgundy buds and pink and white flowers! -- are improvements because their flowers face outward or upward.

Except for hellebores, my earliest flowers are the bulbs, starting with the darling Anemone blanda that have been spreading here for 20 years. (Plant their hard little corms next fall.)

In deer country my best bulbs are all sorts of daffodils, hyacinths and several kinds of alliums. (I see now I should have used the alliums farther back, in a more casual planting area, since they have spread so robustly.) The May/June appearance of floating purple orbs is cool, and they discourage bunnies and deer around the roses, but meanwhile there's a lot of onionlike foliage.

Camassia is a blue-flowering bulb I wish you all to plant in fall -- so true blue, elegant and apparently not interesting to Bambi.

As heartwarming as the flowers, perhaps more so for gardeners, is the sense of promise and anticipation from emerging perennials. These are thrilling -- bold little hosta nubs poking forth (many far from showing yet, though; don't worry), and Solomon's seal leaping upward.

Many perennials, like my mild-mannered lacy goatsbeard and giant Silphium (native cup-plant), have mounded crowns covered with bright green new growth. Best of all, my newest perennial, planted last fall, Mukdenia, with its pointy, bright red-tipped leaves, made it through the winter.

The way perennials show up in spring also tells you a lot about the behavior to expect. Now is the time to assess the patches and decide where to dig out some chunks to control spreading plants. I must do that regularly with turtlehead (Chelone), some daylilies and hostas, Solomon's seal, lamb's ear, most campanulas, the elegant Euphorbia griffithii and even Filipendula.

I should have dug out four-fifths of the yellow-twigged dogwood shoots last year or moved the whole colony. Two lessons for newer gardeners:

Learn early which plants spread, and match them with equally aggressive bed-mates, perhaps in an outer garden where the territory can expand and large patches will be welcomed.

When you are digging out part of a patch that's spreading too far, take out much more than you think you should. What looks like a slight intrusion of turtleheads into the gentle Jacob's ladder will later be a total takeover, so dig boldly and give the more polite plants some space.

>Questions and doubts

All successes and losses are not apparent, even in May. Just this week I've heard many gardeners' comments such as: "I think I lost my (obedient plant, butterfly weed, hardy hibiscus, miniature hosta)" or "My (rose of Sharon, hydrangea, St. John's wort, viburnum) is dead."

I'd guess that most of those aren't dead at all. First, many perennials such as those named just show up very late. Learn their habits and then mark them with sticks or flag to signify "Don't dig here!"

Also, many woody shrubs are very hard to assess this early. The buds progress slowly up the stems as the season warms, and you simply can't tell yet. I've learned that the cut-leaf and 'Gro-low' sumacs leaf out very late. My 'Twisty Baby' black locust looks dead as a post, but looking up at its giant relatives -- resembling a burned-out forest -- I'm reminded to wait patiently for the June leaves and flowers. One of the greatest gifts from a garden is the lesson of patience.

Some worries about evident damage are valid. The darling bunnies or deer did eat most tulip buds and leaves, and all the daylilies, to ground level. Still, a regular sprinkling of such products as Deer-Away or Liquid Fence will probably deter the animals now that there is so much else to eat. The daylilies will be fine, even with sawed-off leaf tips. Where the animals just nibbled a little, leaving a lopsided lilac or Caryopteris, I suggest pruning back now for a balanced look (except wait until after the lilac has flowered).

The other concern for many is the extent of winter kill or winter damage to evergreens and vulnerable plants such as redbuds and Japanese maples. Anything you planted last season was also at risk. Again, give these plants time, as you can't really tell yet. Many plants with some brown needles and sparse growth will burst forth beautifully, and some won't.

As I get older, I value time spent just walking and watching my garden. I hope you also do this, or take up the habit. Then keep your eyes and mind open; the plants can teach us so much.

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Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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