When I first became a gardener, I failed to make a distinction between the dictionary definition of the word 'perennial' and the horticultural term. Perpetual, the word promised. Everlasting. I opted for plants that would come back year after year, imagining them lasting into my old age, growing stronger over time, becoming showpieces against which my toddling grandchildren would be dwarfed.
The first two years of my perennial bed, my children called it "the rain forest." They stalked one another, sheltered by erect columns of purple veronica. Shasta daisies as sturdy as tree limbs shuddered as they raced through the garden, sword fighting with last summer's dried sunflower stalks. Six-foot tall-spikes of blue delphinium and hovering discs of yellow yarrow stood watch from the back of the border.
And wonder of wonders -- after sleeping through the long winter, roots tucked beneath piles of mulch, in the spring came fresh green sprigs, knobs of new growth, miniature leaves waiting for summer sun to lift their faces.
The next few years the perennial bed was largely left to its own devices. I top-dressed it with compost, weeded occasionally and watered when necessary, confident in the perpetuity of my carefully chosen plantings. My life was so hectic, I barely had time to notice the hunched backs of the veronica, the graying stems of the daisies, the disappearing penstemon. The roses never failed, the Oriental poppies were hairy and huge, the peony still had to be propped up when its heavy blossoms opened. I maintained the illusion that this was a garden of strict survivors.
But one year, along with a lifestyle change and more time to pay attention to the perennial border came a rude awakening. Though the perennials always came back, and some were indeed survivors, many species failed to thrive. For some, old age had set in. The bellflower had taken over the coneflower's territory, choking it from sight. The salvia had developed a sick, rusty tinge. My dreams of giant towering stems, the Marlon Brando-esque romp in the garden from the Godfather with my perfect towheaded grandson, were diminished.
I painstakingly thinned the perennial bed, divided the irises and day lilies, removed plants that might as well be dead, relocated crowded species and decided what to replace. It was a melancholy task, a grim reminder that nothing lasts forever.
My rain forest looked as if it had suffered a napalm hit at the end of my botanical cleansing exercise. A few survivors grew stronger, but they watched over the slow demise of their sickly companions.
As I was pulling up the last of the spent daisies last fall, a neighbor reminded me that autumn was a good time to plant perennials. My faith restored, I consulted my faithful Garden Primer and began planning and planting. On the graves of the penstemon, I planted fall blooming perennials -- aster, chrysanthemum, monkshood. I divided the creeping bellflower and opened a new space for more purple coneflowers. I removed a few of the ubiquitous poppy mallows and replaced them with brand new, sure-to-be-giant delphiniums. I added two peonies to the mix to assure certain success, and ordered lily bulbs for spring planting.
I laid on an extra-thick layer of compost and mulch, and sat back to wait through the winter while my perennials slept, nourished by coiling earthworms, melted snows and decomposing foliage. Meanwhile, I grew another year older behind the towering wall that backs the perennial garden, sitting at my desk two floors up.
This summer's bed, I am certain, will return to its former rain forest glory days, though my sons now are too tall to romp through it and I, once again, have over-determined the course of my days. By the time the garden is in its full splendor in late summer, I will hopefully have orchestrated my life back to a level of normalcy and will have time to sit outside in the early evening, feeding my tired eyes with splashes of new growth -- purple, yellow and white -- and a gentle, nourishing wash of green.
The garden and I will be reborn, altered but enriched. That is the gardener's perennial hope, perpetual faith and eternal folly.