If complacency is the enemy of great gardening, then Alaskans are fortunate to the extreme. Every few years, we lose big chunks of our gardens to winters that are unusually terrible, and we get to start all over again, or very nearly so. However, when many hundreds of favorite plants were killed in a recent snowless winter, I was tempted to give up gardening in the subarctic. The fantasy I had to fight the hardest was that of the great lawn. I wanted to spread five dump truck–loads of topsoil over the entire mass grave, plant grass seed, and get out the hammock that’s been packed away for all its years here. But Jeff Drum, garden curator at Wing Haven Gardens in Charlotte, North Carolina, would have given me a verbal slap, pronouncing such a thought “not very gardenerly.” And since I love scratching around in the earth more than anything, I had to find a way out of my crater. Even before I could see the full extent of the damage, a saving thought struck me: I would have to view the massive winter kill as an opportunity rather than a problem. That’s right—the garden wasn’t two-thirds dead, it was one-third full.
Paths In, Pink Out
With so many plants gone, I realized that I had a chance to widen a number of paths that had become much more narrow since their inception in the 1980s. I could have put this chore off forever; I never wanted to deal with the many good plants that had jumped to the edge of beds and beyond. Now, with the plants disposed of for me, I had no excuse for not widening five or six of the early paths. I don’t want to have to do this job ever again, but reconstructing the paths gave the garden a more spacious feel and made walking through it much more enjoyable.
The destruction also presented me the chance to get rid of a bed that had bugged me since I made it, in 1987. It was a mistake from the beginning, a “more-on” bed (the original bed was too small, and I added more on). Yet for one reason—excuse—or another I had never erased it and replaced it with something more pleasing. Peonies and Iris sibirica ‘Caesar’s Brother’ had been its primary plants. Now the peonies were gone, and I knew I had to reconcile that spot. I reshaped the bed and gave it a new identity. I also split up the iris, a survivor of every awful winter, and replanted it in other parts of the garden.
The iris was just one of a number of extremely hardy plants that I had slothfully neglected over the years; neither had I given the ironclad Ligularia ‘The Rocket’ its due. A perfect perennial for Alaska, it never dies, doesn’t need staking, and adds late color. Its foliage stays handsome all season long. All that, but I’d never propagated the four plants in the garden. Using a garden fork to lift and divide them was easy. Now, no matter what sort of winter wipeout awaits the garden, I know I can count on 11 ligularia plants making it to the other side. I also divided and spread the exceedingly beautiful pale yellow Trollius ‘Alabaster’ that year.
Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “pink” person, somehow that had become the garden’s predominant color for about a month, right in the middle of the summer, which made using hot colors difficult. Roses and peonies contributed the largest share of pink, so losing 60 of the 74 peonies gave me the opportunity to introduce some shocks of vibrant color. I got to use the orange crayon again! I moved Lilium ‘Chinook’, a super-hardy Asiatic lily with soft orange flowers, out of the shadows to warm up two beds. I added several herbaceous potentillas as sparklers. Red California poppies (Eschscholziacalifornica ‘Inferno’) provided additional sizzle, and they created a feeling of playful spontaneity that reminded me of the garden in its exuberantly bright early days.
I needed every plant I could lay my hands on to rebuild the garden. In addition to doing more lifting and dividing than ever before, I was forced to dig and relocate the many volunteer seedlings that I would normally pull and compost. One night in late June, after I’d already spent a month putting the garden back together again, I was moving some miniscule gentianellas. I had the strange but happy thought that perhaps, after just 19 years of trying, I was finally an Alaskan gardener. When I shared the thought with a friend who has always thought that I embrace the principle of ruthlessness a bit too enthusiastically, she knew immediately what I meant. She said, “What, you didn’t kill anything this year?”
With the reconstruction behind me, I realized one last thing: if I want to continue gardening happily here, I’m going to have to loosen up. I can’t get so attached to particular plants, or to notions of what’s most beautiful. Alaska always wins. I’ll concentrate on what works best here; the beauty part will take care of itself.