Each summer I’m delighted by every frugal gardener’s secret: perennials. Just when the blossoms of spring have faded and shriveled, and I’m scratching my head over whether the green shoots replacing them are weeds, I wake up one morning and the perennials have burst out – purple coneflowers, daisies, brown-eyed Susans, and phlox.

Perennials are wonderful in part because you don’t have to plant them each spring. The top dies back each winter and re-grows the following spring from the same root system.

Annuals, on the other hand, are lovely, but they are a one-season show. They place all of their energy in what is above ground -- flower, stem and leaves. They are plants that perform their entire life cycle from seed to flower to seed within a single growing season. All roots, stems and leaves die annually.

Perennials develop a more complex root system, a sturdy base that allows them to send up new life the next season.

Perennials are an example of what Leadership Education’s Dave Odom calls a virtuous cycle, a series of events that have beneficial impact on other events. Dave uses the example of the successful summer camp, whose happy campers come back each summer to sing the songs, enact the rituals, and go on the hikes -- and they bring their friends with them the next summer. Good summer camps have complex and deep root systems, like healthy perennials.

What does your organizational root structure look like? What are the ways in which it helps the institution remain self-sustaining year after year? How might we nurture organizations so that they are strong, complex, fruitful and sustainable?

One clue is that perennials know how to present new life when the occasion is right. A healthy soil, the right light, and room enough to grow and spread are all important factors for success. Institutions too have seasons for growth and seasons for dormancy. We can learn to recognize the signs that indicate times for growth or times for pruning.

Gardeners also know that a thriving garden can become crowded. Good gardeners divide perennials at the end of a season and swap clumps of plants with other gardeners; it is one useful way gardeners relate to one another. Dividing helps with overcrowding in one’s own garden, while providing new and useful plants for someone else.

What similar kinds of partnerships keep our institutional gardens healthy? What kinds of internal collaborations can strengthen our work? How can we give out of our own abundance, in a way that helps other individuals grow and flourish in new and unexpected ways?

Likewise, what resources can we share or offer to ensure our survival and that of another organization? One model of this is the dynamic partnerships that IBM created with citizens, businesses and other institutions in Dubuque, Iowa, in order to work on common sustainability goals. Another is that of Christian colleges and seminaries that now share libraries or space in ways that ensure the thriving of both entities, such as the merging of Union and Presbyterian School of Christian Education.

Institutional gardening, like perennial gardening, requires love; knowledge of the soil, the setting and the plants; and sometimes the willingness to relate across garden fences.