Lately, I feel like Kali the Hindu goddess of destruction. You've probably seen sculptures or drawings of the fierce warrior goddess with her wild hair, furrowed brows, red tongue and four arms.
Wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of dead hands, and holding a severed head in one of her four hands, Kali is a terrifying vision. Her ferocious energy combats evil and decay - she destroys in order to recreate. And let me tell you, in the garden, I'm her.
It takes me a while to work up to embodying Kali. I like to think of myself as a mild, peaceful gardener. But the day comes when I'm full of frustration about a certain part of the garden that's not what I had hoped for. The dwarf purple willow I'd pictured as a silver hedge has turned into a weeping shrub, spilling all over the bed, while the old roses I treasured 20 years ago have grown into huge thorny forests.
Who knew that lady's mantle, Michaelmas daisies or bloody cranesbill would hop from bed to bed? Plants that had once been my friends have become very annoying bullies, hogging the borders and leaving no empty space for new arrivals.
But it's hard to uproot living plants, to say goodbye to shrubs that were once useful. I have to summon up all my determination, and remind myself that it's my garden and I'm the boss of it. I will be Kali, the righteous goddess who destroys in order to transform. I have four arms (if you count my mattock and my digging fork) and wild windblown hair laced with Michaelmas daisy seeds.
The implements of destruction
Grabbing my mattock gets me in the mood. It's a tool that means business, with its strong wooden handle and a two-edged blade. One side is like an ax for chopping into roots; the other is a pick that will pierce the most compacted soil. The pick end is also good for prying up rocks that lurk underground.
A couple of swings with the mattock and I'm on a roll, getting the ground opened and loosening the dense root systems of unwanted invasive perennials like flag irises. When I come across a root from a tough shrub or tree that's traveling beyond its territory, I use the ax blade to chop it free, then pry it out with the pick. I fling all the debris onto a big tarp.
You can't swing a mattock without harnessing your destroyer energy. It's empowering! You put your whole weight into it, muscles working to open that soil and remove the undesirables. Next I rake the loosened soil into a calm smooth surface. Before long, the bed is a blank slate waiting for a new picture.
How to decide on what to plant there? I have freed up about 10 feet of border space that's eight feet deep between a fence and a path. I step back and look at the big picture. To the left are plants flaunting brilliant fall color - a Chinese pistachio tree turning orange, a Parrotia tree glowing yellow and red. Two eucalyptus with blue-green foliage hold their leaves year round. Toward the front of this border are wine-leaved shrubs - a 'Summer Glow' ninebark, a 'Raspberry' Chinese fringe flower bush (Loropetalum) and a burgundy-leaved barberry.
To the right of the empty space is a seven son's tree that blooms white in late summer and warms up in September when the flowers drop and red calyces brighten the branches. Beneath it is Gymnaster savatieri, a tough perennial from Japan, with tiny pale blue aster-like flowers that bloom in fall. Why not keep this autumn theme going in the new space?
After the battle, start planting again
Fortunately, like every obsessed gardener I have a stash of plants, collected over years, waiting for homes. A stewartia, red with fall color, and a purple-leaved 'Penny Lane' ninebark are bursting out of their pots, dying to put their roots in the ground, along with an assortment of gray-leaved hebes.
I move them all to the empty space and picture how they will relate to each other and to the already established beds to the left and right.
The stewartia will be the perfect link between the Chinese pistachio and the seven sons tree. 'Penny Lane' will continue the thread of wine-leaved shrubs. And the gray-leaved hebes will echo the eucalyptus foliage.
Now that Kali has cleared the way, I return to my peaceful gardening ways and plant the bed.