The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 7, 2006


Multiplying by dividing — making many plants from one

The first time I saw a demonstration of how to divide a perennial, I was utterly amazed. How could such cruel and heartless abuse of a plant lead to any happy ending? Used to planting tender baby annual plants which require such careful handling (one crushed stem and it's a goner for sure), I could not imagine that a mature perennial plant could endure this vicious slashing and cutting.

It really does work. You slice, pull, rip, and cut a clump of roots and stems in early spring as the plant is beginning to wake up from winter dormancy, and with the right post-operative care, the plant recovers quickly. Indeed, the baby clumps hacked off from the mother plant can give you four, six, ten or more healthy clones. These young rejuvenated plants can fill in your own planting bed in the sweeping numbers you see in glossy garden magazines, or be given away to grateful friends and family, or sold to happy customers at a plant sale.

Now is the time

Early April is the best time to divide most perennials. This is when sensible perennials that, until now, stayed safely tucked underground, begin to awaken and send skyward some brave new shoots. Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William) and Phlox paniculata (Garden Phlox) are some perennials that benefit from division. Other plants such as Epimedium and Papaver (Poppies) just hate being divided. The majority of perennials, however, don't mind as long as division is done between April and mid-May.

Perennials that last year displayed reduced bloom size and quantity, grew a "dead zone" of foliage in the middle of the clump, or produced congested foliage and stems, so as to look downright untidy, are prime candidates for dividing. Division is easy most of the time (unless you're dividing ornamental grasses, which may require three burly men and a chain saw), but pick a nice spring day, set aside a few hours, and be prepared to get dirty.

Four steps to success

The steps for dividing a perennial include 1) dig the plant out of the garden and lay it on a tarp 2) divide into several pieces with at least some leaves and roots intact 3) return the plants to the garden, with space between each clump, or tuck plants into pots 4) water well, preferably adding a fertilizer that contains some decent phosphorus. When you return your perennials to their places in the garden bed, this is also a good time to grub out any offending nearby weeds and amend the soil with some healthy compost or fertilizer.

Plants from division (the name given to chopped up plants) require about two weeks of TLC to recover from their ordeal. One week of careful watering and shading from the full sun, a shot of phosphorus-enriched fertilizer, a further week of attentive watering, and your plants should be ready to thrive without too much further fuss.

Division workshops offered

On Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. from April 12 to May 10, the Garden Club will be offering free hands-on demonstrations of the messy but satisfying gardening skill of plant division in return for help dividing some overgrown perennials. You will learn how to identify the "crown" or growing point that must be treated oh so carefully, and how to keep the exposed roots covered, a step that can make the difference between success and failure. An experienced gardener will talk through the decision-making process of which tool works best for a given situation, how many divisions to make from a mother clump, and how to give the best postoperative care.

The Garden Club demonstrations will take place at the Carlisle rotary and other locations around town. We will pot up divisions to sell at our Plant Sale May 13, which raises money for Garden Club activities that include book donations to the Gleason Library and town beautification. You will leave with new knowledge, the satisfaction of community service, and several new divisions to try in your own garden. Watch the Mosquito for more information, or contact

Alison Saylor is the former owner of Trade Secrets Garden and a past Carlisle Garden Club president.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito