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Divide perennials and see your garden multiply

By NANCY BRACHEYBy Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. My daffodils have finished blooming and the foliage is just standing there. How long before I can plant something else in that space?

    The foliage must be allowed to stay at least until it turns yellow. This nurtures the bulbs for next year’s blooms. If there is space between the bulbs, you can plant something. However, it must be a small plant with a small root ball, such as the type of thing growing in the little six-packs of annual flowers.

    You must be very careful not to hit and pierce the daffodil bulbs when digging with your trowel. It would be best to use a small three-pronged cultivator to pull away enough soil for the roots. If there is space in front of the daffodils, set out your annuals there and let them grow and distract from the sight of the slowly maturing foliage, which may take until late May or June to be finished with its work.

While lots of things in bloom grab out attention these days, other plants are just now making their way out of the ground. They promise lots of bloom in summer and autumn. But if these perennials have been with you a while, they may be ready for division, which means to create new plants or ungroup clumps for the promise of color later this year.

These are the summer- and autumn-flowering perennials such as Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susans, asters, coreopsis, chrysanthemums and Japanese anemones, all popular plants that are long-lived and reliable. These are also vigorous, expanding with care into good-sized clumps over several years.

Last year you may have noticed a clump of your own getting quite thick, a signal that division and replanting are in order. The exceptions are perennials that bloom in spring (such as irises and peonies) and late spring into early summer (such as daylilies). Work on these can wait until after they bloom.

Digging a clump of black-eyed Susans, for example, may give you a huge surprise. Once you raise the clump with a shovel and take a close look, you will see many plants grouped around the original plant that you bought and planted some years ago.

Each of these little plants has the potential to make a fresh clump once it is gently pulled or cut away from the mother plant and replanted in its own space. This is propagation in its easiest form. At this time of year, the foliage is still pretty close to the ground, which makes it easier to handle – as anyone who ever wrestled a mature daylily clump in August will tell you.

Once the clump is dug up, it helps to set it on a tarp or large black plastic garbage bag. Jiggle it a bit to remove some of the soil, and see if any of the small plants loosen themselves. Shaking off the soil makes it easier to see what’s what.

Sometimes, the roots and base of the young plants will be so loosely connected, they will come free with just a gentle tug. In other cases, especially with very mature clumps, the roots can be tied together so tightly that you have to get rather rough with a trowel, garden fork or pruning shears to separate them. While this treatment seems drastic, it should do no harm, provided the newly divided plants keep a good amount of their roots. Look over the plants for dead or damaged roots and leaves and remove those.

You will likely have more plants than you have space for, which is a nice opportunity to share favorite plants. Try to replant immediately. If you don’t, place the plants in a cardboard box, cover them with damp newspapers, and keep them in a cool, shady place for a day or two. If you cannot get them into the ground quickly, plant them in a pot of soil. Replanting now, while the air is still cool and the soil getting warmer, will help the divided plants get adjusted to their new position before the tops get too tall and the stress of summer heat hits.

But it will help if you give the soil a lift with the addition of compost to improve fertility, drainage and the overall quality of the soil. There is nothing better than compost for growing good plants and refreshing the soil where they live.

Because the perennials have been disrupted and will spend effort growing new roots, the plants must be kept watered through the spring and into summer. But this does not mean so much water that the soil stays soggy. Soggy soil does not generate good roots. A light cover of mulch will help keep the roots cool once the heat hits. But that is a while off … I hope.

Some of these small divisions may grow rapidly enough to bloom this summer. And the later ones, such as chrysanthemums, asters and anemones, should bloom at their usual time in late summer or autumn.
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