Each fall, Chicago’s chapter of the environmental nonprofit group Green Corps holds a Great Perennial Divide. They get a bunch of plant donations from nurseries and landscapers who probably wouldn’t be able to sell them off before the end of the season anyway, and hand them out to representatives from community gardens in the city. If you’re not a member of a community garden, you can still participate in the divide by bringing plants from your own garden in exchange for Green Corps’ handouts (community gardeners needn’t do anything but register and show up). I’ve participated in the Great Perennial Divide twice, once as a community gardener and again as a private gardener. Though you don’t get to choose what plants you get, you do get a generous amount, and if you’re lucky, there are a few gems in the bunch. Last year I got a Lobelia siphilitica, or great blue cardinal flower, that bears cheerful, sky blue flowers from July to early September.
As Lobelia’s blooms begin to fade, it’s time to think about dividing perennials that are outgrowing the space you’ve provided them and plant new ones in spaces that need something more or just something different. You give the garden some sprucing up via some subtraction and addition, and you get to relish in one of the gardener’s greatest pleasures, sharing the bounty. I’ve always shared seeds and two years ago made a great connection with a seed-saving, seed-swapping group in upstate New York that is named for its ambitiously timed, but relatively simple seed-starting technique, Winter Sowers. For the price of passing a quiz on their website, Winter Sowers will send you a large envelope full of different seeds — many unusual, all smartly labeled with pictures. Each fall, I collect seeds from my home garden and send them off to the good folks at Winter Sowers; they never fail to send me more excellent varieties of wildflowers and vegetables in exchange, and thus, the sharing keeps things interesting for me in the Spring. This is a gardening relationship that I have come to cherish.
The other is the relationship I have with nearby friends who are fortunate enough to have some amount of space they can dig around in and call garden. My friends and I informally share seedlings, gardening ideas, plant knowledge, and lack of plant knowledge all the time. This year I decided to pool that group of friends and organize our own perennial divide — though it may not have been great on the size and scale of Green Corps’, I thought it was pretty awesome. It didn’t hurt that we were drinking Lemon Verbena gin and tonics and cosmopolitans with garden lavender and basil as we were swapping plants either.
We made no rules about how many plants you had to bring or how many with which you could go home. Since excited urban gardeners are inclined to plant more than they realistically have room for, comments like “No, I really can’t (take that plant)” or “I just don’t have the space” were common at the divide. What was nice was that people got to be selective about what they really wanted. We walked around to each person’s group of donations and the person from whose garden they came talked about the virtues and vices of the specimens up for grabs. That in itself was a nice sharing of observations and experience.
I don’t know if we have the beginnings of a tradition going here, but I know that it was lot of fun to prepare for, and then execute, the divide party. Of course, I haven’t put any of my new plants into the ground yet. As one friend commented, “The pressure here to plant is much greater than if you just bought some plants at a garden center. The person you got your plant from is bound to ask you later ‘Oh,how is that hellebore (that I dug up and that you took home) doing?’ and you don’t want to say ‘Oh sorry, I left it in its pot to die over winter.” No,no. We want the workings of a unified divide. We must follow through and give those perennials a proper home for the years ahead. Or at least until we try to pawn them off on some new gardening friend …