All and all fall is definitely my favorite time of the year, that is with one major exception. That exception is the fact that there is so much work that needs to be done. While I would much rather spend my fall weekends and afternoons doing those really important things like Auburn football, camping trips, and observing the leaves as they begin to turn colors; however, there is actually no better time than the present to begin planning and preparing for next spring and summer’s landscape. I always used to dread fall when it was time to dig and divide the daylilies, irises, and spring flowering bulbs, but hey doing that is still much better than cleaning out the garage which I have been putting off for months now.
Fall is actually the best time to divide spring bulbs as well as many other perennials for that matter. There are basically three reasons for dividing your bulbs and other perennials. Dividing and replanting them will help keep vigorous rapidly spreading perennials under control and will prevent them from overgrowing their location. Dividing them will also help rejuvenate older plants that may be in a declining state or else fail to bloom “the way they used to”. Finally and best of all, Dividing your perennials is a very easy and inexpensive way to establish new beds or share some of your favorites with your neighbors.
Dividing your perennials anytime from September to late October will allow them time to get established before cold weather sets in. Most of your perennials will need dividing every three to five years. Some; however, such as chrysanthemums may need dividing more frequently while others such as bleeding hearts and peonies may never need dividing.
Sure signs that your bulbs or other perennials need to be divided include flowers that are smaller than normal for your plants. Many times older perennials develop dead masses of root tissue in the center that really detract from their appearance and should also be divided. Poor bottom foliage growth is another indication that your perennials should be divided. Plants that are growing and blooming well should be left alone unless you need more plants to establish your beds in another location.
You will need to do a little preparation before you divide your bulbs. Water your plants about a day or two before you plan to divide them. This will help the plant deal with the stress of being moved a little better and will certainly make digging much less stressful on you. Prune the old spent foliage back to within six inches of the ground at the most using a sharp set of pruners. Trust me on this one, a dull set of pruners makes the job much harder on you and is also not good for your plants.
Use a sharp pointed shovel or spade to dig deeply on all four sides of your plant. It is best to dig at least four to six inches from the outside of the plant on all sides and make sure you get below the root system to prevent damaging the roots or bulbs. You can then “pop” or lift the clump right out of the ground. Shaking off the remaining soil and removing dead leaves and stems will help you to loosen the tangled root balls. The much needed rainfall that we received this week should make digging and dividing a bit easier, and the cooler temperatures and lower humidity makes it to where you can actually stand to be outside.
The type of root system your plant has will determine which method of division is best. Plants with slender matted roots that seem to originate from everywhere such as asters, bee balm, lamb’s ear and even cone flower are quite easy. These can easily be pulled apart by hand or cut with a knife. The dead matted centers should be discarded.
Some perennials have a very tough clumping root system that originates from a central clump. Hostas and daylilies are an example. These are more difficult and may require a heavy knife or sharp spade or shovel to cut through the thick roots. One of the worst and most difficult plants that I divide is my dreaded pampas grass. One word of advice, if you are planning on dividing clumps of pampas grass not only will you need a good shovel, a sharp cutting tool but also a good set of work gloves. The blades of pampas grass is very sharp and rigid and can cut you and even clothes quite easily. While it is difficult, the wonderful fall feather plumage certainly makes it worth the effort. One important thing to remember is that when you remove a clump to plant in another location be sure that you get one or more developing buds or “eyes” with each division.
Irises are also a very common perennial that needs to be divided regularly. Irises are not actually bulbs, rather they are rhizomes that grow at or even slightly above ground level. Once you dig them, you will need to inspect the rhizomes for signs of damage or disease. Damaged rhizomes should be trimmed or else discarded. Also discard your old rhizomes in favor of newer healthier ones. The iris rhizomes that you replant should have at least one fan of leaves if at all possible and should be planted with the top of the rhizome showing above the soil.
Whichever method of division fits your plant, make sure that the divisions are never allowed to dry out before they are replanted. Plant your divisions as soon as possible in either pots or in their new location in your landscape. They should be replanted at the same depth as they originally grew. Firm the soil around your new divisions to eliminate air pockets that will dry out the root system and don’t forget to water them in. Finally, a thin layer of mulch such as pine straw or shredded leaf material will help ensure your divisions will successfully grow, thrive, and bloom next spring.
While dividing bulbs and perennials requires a lot of time and work and is certainly not one of those fall chores we look forward to, you will be rewarded for your efforts by next year’s colorful showy blooms.
Also, don’t forget that there is no better time of the year than fall to plant woody-stemmed shade trees, ornamentals, and even home fruit trees. Our fall temperatures are such that top growth on our newly planted trees and shrubs stops; however, the soil temperature is still warm enough to allow for root growth to help your plants get established. There is also much less disease, insect, and heat stress related problems when trees and shrubs are planted this time of year – and for you home gardeners there is also no better month than October if you want to plant home garden strawberries for next year.