A neglected spot and its nearly forgotten planting provide a delightful lesson in delayed gratification.
More than a decade ago I bought a pot of astilbe for my sun-challenged yard, and then – not-very-good-gardener that I then was – planted it haphazardly, down at the edge of my clearing. Not surprisingly, it stopped blooming after the first or second spring, after which I pretty much forgot about it.
Then, in the summer of 2008, I decided to spruce up a space underneath a tree just off my deck. It was a “problem spot,” with terribly compacted red clay that never seemed to dry out; a waste place where I’d tossed garden refuse that should have gone into a compost pile. My thinking – if thinking was involved – was that the refuse, when it broke down, would add organic matter to the clay and improve the soil, should I ever transform that area into a small garden bed.
That time had come.
I removed the refuse that hadn’t broken down, added some compost, bought a few coleus plants, then scoured the yard for shade-loving perennials. It was then that I remembered the astilbe. Amazingly, it was still alive, although the plants looked pathetic. It wasn’t a good time to transplant them – early July – but I dug them up anyway and moved them to one corner of the bed.
Bad time to transplant or no, the beleaguered plants loved their new home. They developed the glossy, deep green foliage that makes astilbe attractive even when it’s not in bloom. True, those leaves didn’t lighten up the space under the tree, but the coleus did. I was ecstatic that the astilbe was happy. I hate the part of me that buys plants, then delays getting them into the ground, or plants them carelessly. For the first time since I bought it, I felt good about the astilbe.
The lush foliage the plants produced that summer was only my first reward. I mulched the bed with leaves in the fall, and was amazed the next spring to see how many astilbe plants pushed up through it. They must have bloomed that year too, but in the spring of 2010, the astilbe reached its apotheosis. By then it occupied a third of the bed; at the end of May it transformed itself into a haze of gauzy pink.
If I hadn’t been writing a book last spring, I would have done what I should have done then and divided the clump. The astilbe again bloomed profusely, although less profusely than the year before. The National Gardening Association suggests dividing astilbe “every three to four years as new growth begins in spring, lifting the plants and dividing them into clumps.” This spring I’ll do that. Some of the clumps will go back into the same bed, after I’ve added more shredded leaves and compost. Where the rest will go I’ve got time to dream on.
What Astilbe Likes
I hadn’t realized, when I moved the astilbe to its new bed, that it “tolerates wet soil.” All I knew was that it liked shade. I now know that, while it does best in light to full shade, it can even tolerate full sun, so long as the soil remains consistently moist. It also prefers soil with an acidic pH, and does best where the summers are cool and moist. Depending on variety, the plants grow from six inches to five feet tall. Blooms in a range of hues appear from late spring to early summer.
You can plant astilbe in spring or fall. If you’re dividing existing plants – or planting bare root plants – do that in spring. Loosen soil to a depth of 12-15 inches and mix in a 2-4-inch layer of compost. For potted plants, dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot and place the plant so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. For bare-root plants, make a hole twice the width of the roots and 4-6 inches deep; position roots so the crown is 1-2 inches below ground level. In either case, add soil around the root ball, firm it and water thoroughly.
My astilbe is pink, although blooms can be white, red or lavender, depending on variety. Mine are less than two feet tall, but varieties vary in height from six inches to five feet, according to the National Gardening Association. – ECH