Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
June, 2004
Regional Report

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This clump of daylilies is easy to divide by breaking the root mass apart, making sure each division has both roots and foliage attached.

Time to Divide and Conquer

I originally designed my perennial borders to be permanent, but I've since learned that flower beds are really just works in progress. Sometimes plants aren't satisfied with their allotted space, or I get tired of them and want to try something new. And, there always seems to be an overgrown bed with plants in need of rescue. For whatever reason, I know that eventually my flower beds will need some major renovation.

When to Renovate
Late spring or early fall, when soil and air temperatures are cool, are the best times for digging and transplanting perennials. The plants suffer less stress, and the abundance of natural rainfall helps ease their transition into a new home. I choose late spring over fall because my energy level and enthusiasm are highest then, plus the newly divided plants have the whole summer to recover and fill in any gaps.

Empty the Bed
The first step in renovating a perennial border is to empty the bed of plants. I cut a circle around the crown of each plant with a spade, and then pry up the roots with a garden fork. As I remove plants, I set them on a tarp spread out in a shady spot and sprinkle them lightly with water to keep the roots from drying out.

Amend the Soil
Once all the plants are removed, I rejuvenate the soil by digging in organic matter. We all have our own methods of amending soil, but I find it easiest to spread a 4- to 5-inch layer of compost over the soil surface, sprinkle 1 cup of granular 10-20-20 fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed, then mix it thoroughly with native soil. I try to dig the organic matter in 8 to 12 inches deep. Finally, I rake the soil smooth, stepping as lightly as possible on the bed to avoid compacting it.

Divide and Transplant
Not all plants need dividing, but renovating a bed is a golden opportunity to increase your stock of favorite plants and to pot some up for sharing with friends. Dividing plants not only produces new babies, it also keeps plants growing vigorously. Most plants that can be divided are tougher than you think and quite forgiving if you accidentally mash the foliage. I tug the roots apart with my hands, cut with a knife, or chop away with a spade or axe, depending on root mass density. Woody masses of roots are the biggest challenge, but they all come apart eventually with persistence. Once separated, each little plant is potted up or placed in the bed, where they'll soon recover.

Mulch and Water
The final step in renovation is topping the bed with a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch. You can use shredded leaves; aged, composted, pine needles; or finely chopped bark to help suppress weeds and slow evaporation of soil moisture. Once the mulch is in place, water thoroughly. I use a watering wand to provide a gentle shower, sweeping it back and forth until I'm sure the soil is saturated. When all this is done, it's time to sit back and relax. The newly transplanted perennials will begin to recover immediately and produce new growth in a week or two.

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