Dividing Perennials: Tools, Techniques, and Timing
Take your cues from root systems and weather conditions
I’m a frugal gardener. Maybe that explains why I’m drawn to plants I can divide. But propagation by root division is more than a cost-efficient way to increase my collection of perennials; it also promotes vigor by stimulating new growth both below- and aboveground.
Although many gardening books tout dividing herbaceous perennials every two to five years, I choose not to rely strictly on the calendar. Instead, I consider a plant’s shape and condition before taking a spade to it. If a plant looks crowded and is performing poorly, I know it probably needs to be divided. If a perennial is thriving and continuing to flower year after year, my motto is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Size up the root ball before you dig
The success of any transplanted division depends on its root system. Some divisions fail because they don’t have sufficient roots to support their foliage. To avoid shortchanging plants of the roots they need to prosper, I give them a wide berth when digging them out of the ground. It’s better to have more soil and roots than less. I can shake off excess dirt, but I can’t paste severed roots back on.
To approximate the size of a root ball, I place the tip of my spade at the base of the plant and make a mark in the soil at the end of the spade’s head. This distance, 8 to 12 inches, is usually enough to ensure that I won’t dig into any valuable roots.
I pry the plant out of the ground by pushing the head of my spade straight into the ground and pulling the handle back toward me. Shallow-rooted plants come out of the ground easily, but deeper-rooted plants that have the reputation for being ornery, like large ornamental grasses, may require a bit more effort.
Quarter clumpers with a spade
Since I’m not blessed with forearms the size of Popeye’s or clawlike fingers, I rely on tools like a spade, two pitchforks, and a handsaw to divide larger clumpers like daylilies (Hemerocallis cvs.) and larger grasses. When using a spade to divide, I lay the root ball on its side and position the spade in the center of the root ball’s crown. With a quick jabbing movement, I split the crown in half, and repeat the process until I get the number of pieces I need. The real fun begins when I see all the new plants I can get by dividing, but I try to keep my excitement at bay because there’s still work to do. I replant my divisions at the same depth as the original plant, making sure the crown is slightly above the soil level.Perennials with fibrous root systems and clumping growth habits are collectively known as clumpers. Smaller clumpers like bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), lungworts (Pulmonaria spp. and cvs.), primroses (Primula spp.), and columbines (Aquilegia spp.) can be dug up and pried apart by hand.
For those gardeners lacking upper-arm strength or averse to such a barbarian display, two pitchforks can be inserted back to back into a clumper’s root ball to divide it. By slowly drawing the handles away from each other, I can pry the root ball apart without breaking a sweat.
Some clumpers, like astilbes and lilyturf, form tough root systems that can’t be divided with a spade or pitchfork. For these, I use an 8-inch-long handsaw to cut the root system apart. Each section should contain a piece of the woody root and growth points.
Division size is a matter of personal taste and the size of your garden. In my garden, the optimal size of a division is about one-quarter the size of the original root ball. Pieces this size are big enough to reestablish themselves quickly, but small enough to not need division again for a while. Those with large gardens may prefer large divisions that will fill in a space quickly, while those with smaller spaces may prefer smaller pieces.
Separate small clumpers like lambs’ ears into pieces by hand.
Slice fibrous, clumping root balls like those of hosta into viable pieces with a spade.
Slice rhizomes and tubers with a knife or shears
Plants that grow from rhizomes and tubers are also good candidates for propagation by division. Rhizomes are thick, fleshy stems that grow horizontally just beneath the surface of the soil, while tubers are swollen sections of stems or roots. As new rhizomes and tubers are produced, the plants expand outward, and small roots grow to anchor them to the ground. Iris, Canna, and Bergenia are examples of rhizomatous species, while Dahlia and some Anemone species are tuberous plants.
Dividing rhizomes and tubers requires more finesse than the brutal methods used to divide clumping plants, and understanding how rhizomes and tubers grow is helpful when dividing them. Once I’ve got the rhizomes or tubers out of the ground, I shake or wash off the soil so I can see what I’m working with. I use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut rhizomes and tubers into pieces that contain at least one growth point or dormant bud.
I replant only plump and healthy-looking rhizomes and tubers and discard those that are old, withered, or diseased. Rhizomes should be planted no deeper than half their width. A 1-inch-wide rhizome should be buried about ½ inch deep. Tubers should be planted in the soil with the growth point or dormant bud just peeking out of the ground. I space rhizome and tuber divisions 10 to 12 inches apart to give them room to expand.
|Cut rhizomes like irises into 2- to 4-inch pieces, making sure each contains buds and roots.|
For best results, divide plants in spring or fall
The best time for division sometimes depends on the type of plant being divided. Ornamental grasses respond better to spring division, while astilbes, irises, and peonies are partial to fall division. The area of the country you live in may also dictate the best time of the year to divide perennials. In areas that experience early frosts and harsh winter weather, plants divided in fall may not have enough time to establish roots before the ground freezes, and may be subject to frost heave. To safeguard against that, spring division and transplanting is the only option. Gardeners in warmer climes have more options for dividing and transplanting because of the longer growing season.
And although some perennials can be divided at any time during the growing season in a pinch, no matter what area of country you’re in, it’s best not to divide during the hot summer months or when plants are channeling all their energy into foliage and flower growth. Early spring and early fall are the best times of the year to divide perennials to provide transplants with enough time to devote to root growth before the hot or cold weather sets in.
Some sun exposure is inevitable, but I try to do most of my dividing when the weatherman is calling for overcast skies. When exposed to sun, newly divided plants with compromised root systems cannot draw enough water from the soil to support the foliage, which can lead to wilting and death. Two other tactics to help minimize water loss through transpiration are trimming foliage back to be in proportion with roots and shielding plants from bright sun with small lath structures until they are acclimated to their new environment.
Having dividable perennials in the garden is like having money in the bank. I like the luxury of having a supply of plants to draw on to start a new bed or to fill in an occasional gap in my garden. Propagation by division also allows me to have a cache of plants available for bartering with my gardening pals. And my supply is always growing.
When and how to divide perennials
The root balls of some perennials can be simply pulled apart with your hands; others need to be sliced with a spade or even cut with a saw. Here’s a list of dozens of perennials and the best way to divide them.
When dividing perennials, timing and technique are important. And while many perennials can be divided in either early spring or early fall, some are very picky. The optimal time to divide specific perennials is denoted by (S) for spring and (F) for early fall. A single asterisk indicates that division should take place after the plant flowers. Two asterisks mean that protective gloves should be worn when dividing the plant, since its sap may irritate skin.
Divide these plants by hand
- Blanket flowers (Gaillardia spp.) S/F
- Bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.) S*
- Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) S/F
- Columbines (Aquilegia spp.) S/F
- Coral bells (Heuchera spp.) S/F
- Cranesbills (Geranium spp.) S/F
- Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) S/F
- Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) S/F
- Epimediums (Epimedium spp.) S*/F
- Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) S/F
- Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) S*/F
- Hellebores (Helleborus spp.) S*/F
- Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum) S/F
- Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) S/F
- Lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) S/F
- Moss pink (Phlox subulata) F
- Primroses (Primula spp.) S*
- Pulmonarias (Pulmonaria spp.) S*/F
- Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica) S/F
- Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) S/F
- Speedwell (Veronica spicata) S/F
- Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) S/F**
- Stonecrop (Sedum spectabile) S/F
- Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) F
- Violets, pansies (Viola spp.) S/F
- Wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana) S/F
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) S/F
Divide these plants with a spade or pitchfork
- African lilies (Agapanthus cvs.) S/F
- Anemone (Anemone × hybrida) S
- Asters (Aster spp.) S
- Bee balm (Monarda didyma) S/F
- Bellflowers (Campanula spp.) S/F
- Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) S/F
- Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) S/F
- Blood grass (Imperata cylindrica) S/F
- Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) S/F
- Catmint (Nepeta × faassenii) S/F
- Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) S/F
- Daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum) S/F
- Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) S/F
- Forest grass (Hakenochloa macra) S/F
- Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) S/F
- Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) S/F
- Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) S/F
- Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) S/F
- Gunnera (Gunnera manicata) S/F
- Hostas (Hosta spp.) S/F
- Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) S/F
- Jerusalem sage (Phlomis russeliana) S/F
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Ligularia (Ligularia dentata) S/F
- Masterwort (Astrantia major) S/F
- Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) S
- Penstemons (Penstemon spp.) S/F
- Perennial sage (Salvia × superba) S*/F
- Pinks (Dianthus plumarius) S/F
- Poppies (Papaver spp.) F
- Red hot pokers (Knifophia spp.) S/F
- Sedge (Carex morrowii) S/F
- Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) F
- Silver grasses (Miscanthus spp.) S/F
- Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) S/F
- Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) S/F
- Tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata) S/F
- Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) S/F
- Yarrow (Achillea filipendulina) S/F
Slice apart woody crowns with a handsaw
- Amsonias (Amsonia spp.) S/F
- Astilbes (Astilbe spp.) S/F
- Bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus) S/F
- Doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda) S
- Foxtail lilies (Eremurus spp.) F
- Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) S/F
- Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) S/F
- Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) S/F
- Lilyturf (Liriope spicata) S/F
- Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) S/F
- Meadowsweets (Filipendula spp.) S/F
- Peonies (Paeonia cvs.) F
- Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum) S/F
- Wild indigo (Baptisia australis) S*/F
Cut up rhizomes and tubers with a knife
- Arum (Arum italicum) F
- Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) S/F
- Caladiums (Caladium spp.) S
- Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) S
- Cannas (Canna spp.) S
- Corydalis (Corydalis lutea) S/F
- Dahlias (Dahlia cvs.) S
- Elephant’s ear (Alocasia spp.) S
- Irises (Iris spp.) F
- Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) S/F
- Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) S/F
- Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) S
- Rodgersia (Rodgersia pinnata) S/F
- Spurge (Euphorbia griffithii) S/F**
- Wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) S
These perennials are best not divided
- Alyssums (Alyssum spp.)
- Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
- Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)
- Delphinium (Delphinium × elatum)
- Euphorbia (Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii)
- Foxgloves (Digitalis spp.)
- Garden sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Geraniums (Pelargonium spp.)
- Lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
- Lavenders (Lavandula spp.)
- Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
- Sea hollies (Eryngium spp.)
- Silvermound (Artemisia schmidtiana)
- Sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius)
- Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
"If it ain’t broke, do not fix it" is also my motto.
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