Life lessons come so simply

Garden Muse
by: JIM CLARK, Shade-loving and drought tolerant, bishop’s hats brighten up the darker spots in a garden.

As I clean up the garden in spring, I glean garden wisdom. Classes, books and Internet searches are educational, but I discover most right in the garden, nose-to-nose with fragrant jonquils.

• You can't have too many daffodils, and it's easy to sandwich them in.

This April I have enough daffodils to harvest bouquets with wild abandon.

As I cut back perennial foliage last fall, I tucked daffodil bulbs between lungworts and daylilies, between coral bells and ferns, between hellebores and bishop's hats.

They have room to rise up and bloom right now, yet as they decline, their yellowing leaves will be camouflaged by the expanding foliage of perennials.

• Before planting a new plant in the same place, assess the situation.

If the last plant died becausej it was too tender for our winter, try something hardier.

If the soil is heavy clay, amend it with compost and some finely crushed rock or grit. If the plant is a sun lover growing in shade, or a shade lover growing in sun, transplant it to a more suitable site and give it another chance.

• You can't have too many bishop's hats.

Spring is when bishop's hats (Epimedium) light up the shade garden.

Yellow, white, lavender, rose, even orange and hot pink, they make up for their small size with an abundance of blossoms. Heart-shaped leaves, mainly evergreen, have bronze tints in the new foliage.

Best of all, once they're established, Epimedium are very drought tolerant due to their deep roots. This year I'm thrilled to see 'Hot Lips' in full bloom - bright pink flowers sparkle on arching stems.

Kudos to Diana Reek of Collector's Nursery for hybridizing 'Hot Lips.' Even though the nursery has closed, Reek plans to continue her adventures with Epimedium and offer them by mail order. I can't wait for more of her scintillating introductions.

• A touch of red is welcome in spring.

Just when the red flowers of winter-blooming Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide' subside, Camellia japonica 'Tinsie' (also known as 'Bokuhan') opens.

'Tinsie' combines deep red flowers with a central tuft of white petaloides, similar to Japanese peonies. The white electrifies the red, making 'Tinsie' irresistible.

Other touches of red: the stems of redtwig dogwood, early red tulips like 'Couleur Cardinal,' and the new leaves of 'Onandaga' viburnum.

• Spring is the easiest time to take little nibbles of perennials and transplant them.

Sedums, saxifrages and cranesbills are enjoying spring fever by running underground.

As they spread, it's easy to tug gently on their stems and pull out a rooted section, or slip. Transplant each slip into fertile soil, tamp it down well and let spring's gentle rain water it in.

I rob little bits from places they'll never be missed - at the edge of a colony of cranesbills (Geranium hybrid) where it's bumping up against a daylily, in the center of a crowded drift of London pride (Saxifraga umbrosa), from the back of a large clump of 'Matrona' sedum.

• Plants that look pitiful now deserve a quick and easy death.

In past years I felt sorry for anything showing signs of life. I prayed for a hebe with two leaves on it, fussed over a rose with one live cane and pampered a penstemon with a trace of green at the soil level.

They all limped along and finally disappeared in July. This year I dig up the dead and half-dead, and breathe easier. Now there is room for new plants waiting their turn.

• Ornamental containers make good homes for young shrubs.

Recently I was hunting for an empty space to plant two bright yellow barberries - spreading Berberis japonica 'Aurea' and columnar 'Pow Wow.'

Two turquoise ceramic pots proved to be the perfect homes, at least for now. I love the contrast between brilliant golden leaves and turquoise glaze. Placed along the edge of a long border, the pots command attention.

• Common plants deserve respect, too.

It's easy to become a plant snob and disdain tried and true plants. But prima donnas alone do not make a garden.

This year, especially, I'm grateful for the reliable shrub honeysuckle clan. Several privet honeysuckles (Lonicera pileata), with wide-spreading branches and small glossy leaves, make a handsome evergreen skirt along the north side of my greenhouse.

A group of bright 'Baggeson's Gold' honeysuckles flourish in poor soil on the west side of the greenhouse, with drifts of hellebores blooming burgundy at their feet.

The vigorous 'Baggeson's Gold' honeysuckles require yearly pruning, and it's while I'm tending them that I remember to pay homage to ordinary plants.