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Gardeners score free plants by dividing perennials

September 02, 2013
  • Annette Ipsan
Annette Ipsan

I love free things.

I especially love free plants.

If you are growing perennials, getting free plants is as easy as digging and dividing them every few years. 

What are perennials? They are the blooming plants whose tops die back in winter, then return each spring from their roots. Magic!

I’m not supposed to play favorites, but I love perennials for their varied shapes, sizes, colors and blooms.

Plus, they give you free plants.  

Most perennials need to be divided every three years or so to maintain vigor. Why? They get crowded and stop leafing out and blooming well.

Many grow outward from a center that gets bare, forming an unsightly “donut.” 

Fall and spring are the best times to divide perennials to minimize shock and give divisions the best start.

I do most of my dividing in September/October or March/April, since this is when perennials are in or near dormancy.

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Dividing perennials is easy.

Start by digging up the whole plant with a shovel or garden fork.

Then divide the root ball into several pieces with a shovel, knife or your hands. 

Each section should have a healthy clump of roots and leaves or shoots.

Some perennials such as daylilies have massive, dense root balls that are difficult to divide.

Slice and dice these big boys. Simply slice sections off the edges of the root ball, each with good roots and tops. Or stab two garden forks back-to-back in the middle of a dug clump and rock them to separate.

Remove any roots or crowns (the part where the roots and stems meet) that are brown or soft. Replant the best of the best to keep your garden healthy. 

Roots can dry out quickly, so plan ahead to get your new divisions into the ground quickly.
Know where they are going and get the new site ready.

Dig each hole twice the size of the root ball and a bit deeper.

This is a good time to boost your soil with some compost. Just mix some into the soil you removed and use it to replant your divisions. 

Loosen the roots a bit on each division and plant them at the same depth they were growing in their original location. And avoid packing the soil tightly. You want to get rid of big air holes but not compress the soil. 

Water thoroughly and top with an inch or two of mulch to conserve moisture. Continue watering new divisions for a few weeks to give them a good start.

A few perennials with woody crowns such as baby’s breath resent division. A good reference book such as Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” can help you spot the ones that should not be disturbed and give you more helpful hints on dividing perennials.

Perennials are the gift that keeps on giving, delivering free divisions you can use to spread favorites or endear yourself to gardener friends. Why not add a few new perennials to your garden this fall?

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland in Washington County.  She can be reached at 301-791-1604 or aipsan@umd.edu.

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