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AUTUMN DILEMNA

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

It used to be so easy in my father’s day. In mid winter gardeners received mail order catalogs from all kinds of far-flung nurseries and plant purveyors. Mailboxes groaned under the weight of all the catalogs, but no one minded because there is nothing like looking at pages and pages of perfect annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees on a gray, uninspiring day at the end of January. With the holidays over and spring yet to happen, catalogs satisfied the universal hunger for color and light and rebirth. Besides, unless there is a flu epidemic, not much else goes on between New Years and Valentine’s Day.

And of course, in July or August those same gardeners could rest in their hammocks and peruse catalogs from the bulb vendors. On days when even turning a catalog page makes you break out in a total body sweat, it’s nice to think about those days in early spring when you go out and hunt for the first snowdrop or crocus. All in all, there used to be a certain symmetry to the gardening life.

Now gardening and sports have something in common—all the seasons seemed to have melded together. Just as there are a few days in winter when you can watch baseball, hockey, basketball and football all in the same day, there are days in late summer when gardeners can look at new catalogs for annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and spring-flowering bulbs all in the same day. Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing, but too much choice can lead to paralysis. I know, because it is happening to me.

The reason for this is that the catalog vendors have discovered something that good gardeners have always known—fall is a great time to plant perennials. Now instead of simply considering your bulb purchases in mid to late summer, you can page through abbreviated versions of most of the leading plant retailers’ catalogs. I know from experience that it becomes hard to focus on Heuchera when you are hearing the siren song of the lily-flowering tulips.

And then there’s the problem of budgeting. Is it possible to order the hundreds of bulbs necessary for a respectable spring show if you are also sending away for a tree peony, four or five astilbes and a clutch of hellebores? It is, as the King of Siam once said, "a puzzlement".

Common sense refuses to assert itself. I tend to forget that last year at least fifty daffodils never got planted because the ground turned to iron before my feet turned towards the garden. It is harder to forget the five potted perennials that I got on sale six weeks ago. They languish in my driveway still, irrigated but not installed. If common sense had anything to do with it, I would not touch a catalog until I planted them.

All things come in time, and for me common sense usually reasserts itself as time begins to run out.

Common sense tells me that my window of opportunity for planting perennials (until about the end of September) will close before the window for planting bulbs. Therefore I should take advantage of that sale on Anemone japonica and Boltonia asteroides now, lest others profit from my indecisiveness.

A far as bulbs go, I will order the ones that are rare, or pricey or especially delectable now, and wait a few weeks for the rest. Noble ‘King Alfred’ daffodils will be available later on, but the sultry ‘Flaming Purissima’ tulips may well be gone.

Using this line of reasoning means that I get about as many plants and bulbs as I can cope with, if not as many as I want. It also saves me from total financial ruin. Applying reason also means that there might be time left over from ordering and planting to divide my muscular German iris and transplant a poorly sited Rose of Sharon.

In the end, this saved time might be crucial. With the first spring catalogs set to arrive just before Christmas, the intervals between bouts of catalog-induced paralysis get shorter every year.

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