Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
May, 2005
Regional Report

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Although a riot of color, the plants in this overgrown bed are competing for moisture and nutrients. I'll remove the plants, amend the soil, then replant so each has plenty of elbow room.

Too Much of a Good Thing

I've already admitted that I'm an incurable plant collector; I also have a "no bare earth" policy in my garden. These traits have gotten me into trouble more times than I can count. Just when I think I can't possibly squeeze another plant into a flower bed, I manage to find space for the latest and greatest annual or perennial to hit the market. It only takes a year or two for my overindulgences to turn a once well-designed perennial bed into a colorful but hopelessly overgrown monstrosity. I'm afraid there's no denying: It's time for a major overhaul!

When to Overhaul
The cooler soil and air temperatures of spring and fall provide the best conditions for digging and transplanting perennials. The plants suffer less stress, and the natural rainfall helps ease their transition to a new home. I choose springtime over fall because my energy and enthusiasm are highest then, and 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 pry the roots up 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. I 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, and then mix it thoroughly with native soil. I try to dig the organic matter in at least 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. 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 the density of the root mass. Woody root masses are the biggest challenge, but they all come apart eventually with persistence. Once separated, each little plant is placed in the bed, where it will soon thrive.

Mulch and Water
The final step in renovation is to top the bed with a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch. You can use shredded leaves, aged compost, or finely chopped bark to help suppress weeds and slow evaporation of soil moisture. Once the mulch is in place, it's important to 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. Plants will begin to recover and produce new growth in just a few weeks.

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