By Rhea Hamilton-Seeger
Every few years we need a moist summer if only just to boost the water tables and give the deep rooted trees a good drink.
Our garden this summer has virtually leaped ahead of me. Our hydrangeas have never looked so good. They usually droop several times over the summer as they compete for water with the locust towering over them.
This year they flourished and the numerous blooms were bigger than ever.
With the great growth this summer comes the realization that some of the larger perennials have outgrown their space and need splitting. Splitting offers you more plants but also encourages healthier plants. The vigorous young plants, shoots or crowns will thrive and you can dispose of the older worn out sections in the compost. As always there are a few simple common sense rules that will ensure a successful move for any of your perennials.
Timing is everything. A simple guide as to what you can split and successfully move now and what you have to leave until spring is seasonal timing. Of course you should not move a plant when it is in full leaf or carrying buds and blooms. I know some of us do it, water like crazy and hope for the best. Disturbing the roots at this crucial time compromises not only your blooms, but also the life of the plant.
In the fall you can divide plants that bloom in the spring and early summer and save moving the fall blooming plants for early spring.
Water well the day before to make sure the roots and plant tissue are hydrated. Pick a cool morning and don’t let your plant’s roots be exposed to sunlight or drying winds. If I am doing a lot of moving, I like to keep a washtub with a bit of water in the bottom and a stack of newsprint handy. I dig up a clump and set it into the tub if they are going to be out in the open for any length of time. I then tuck newspaper over the root balls and wet it down.
Dividing plants can be a challenge if they are large. I have a cleaver and a long slender knife in my gardening pail for just this task. Start with a sharp shovel and dig straight down around the drip line of the plant. Gently push back on the shovel, loosening the root ball from the ground.
I always start with the best intentions but sometimes I find a main root that seems to go to China. Then the muscle takes over and I pry that poor plant out, listening for the sickening snap of the root. I hate moving peonies for this reason. Sometimes it cannot be avoided. They have a tendency to send major root stems downward and some breakage is inevitable. So if you are planting peonies for the first time think of it as their ‘forever home’.
Reduce the stress on the plant, cut back extra foliage. In the fall you can safely cut it all back to six inches. If moving plants in the spring, aim for when they have not fully leafed out.
Once you have the clump out, brush some of the soil away, using your hand or the hose. Revealing the roots will help you make a healthier cut with less damage.
Different types of roots require some guidelines.
Tap rooted perennials are a challenge. You don’t want to snap that root and you want to make sure it is planted back at the same depth to offer the plant an anchor. Hollyhocks and lupins are favourites but both seed out quite well and hate to be moved. Hollyhocks are actually biennial and lupins are just plain fussy. I lost several lupins when we had to move a garden to make way for a new septic system. Never came back. Also the popular butterfly weed is tap-rooted and hates to be moved. Moving the seedlings are the best approach to moving most tap rooted plants. The large oriental poppies don’t like being moved so it is much simpler to collect the seed and distribute in new areas of the garden. Seedlings will move easily too if you make sure you have enough soil with them.
Then comes the underground rhizomes that like to be near the surface of the soil. Avoid cutting the rhizomes, when you dig them, separate the old and shriveled from the new with a sharp knife being sure to have a healthy section with at least one ‘eye’ or bud. Check for root borer evidence and promptly trash anything that is suspect. Cut back the leaves to six inches in a fan shape. His reduces weight on the roots allowing them to settle in better and I think the fan is simply a visual. Also in this group are daylilies, Solomon’s seal and bloodroot.
Then there are the plants with running roots, they seem to go on forever and when you move them they get ‘wilty’ and pout for a while. Among them are sweet woodruff and Lamb’s ears as well as goosenecked loosestrife and the ever-popular bee balms or monarda. Their roots run along the soil surface or just below it. On the surface they set out roots where there is a node and create a new plant. Roots running just under the surface fan out from the mother plant setting up almost a skirt of new plants.
When you dig up the mother plant, brush the soil away and search for sections that can be easily detached by gently pulling or neatly trimming them. Select the healthiest or largest to plant out. Smaller plantlets can be potted up for sharing.
After taking the time to carefully lift and divide your perennials don’t skip on preparing the new spot. Make sure the hole is ample sized and back fill with a mixture of garden compost, well-composted manure or shredded leaves. If necessary, put a bit of coarse sand in the bottom to ensure good drainage.
Water well to settle in the plant and monitor until the ground freezes. Aim to have your work done at least three weeks before the ground freezes to allow new root growth. Boy not much time left, I better get busy! ◊
Rhea Hamilton-Seeger and her husband live near Auburn. She is a skilled cook and gardener.