Dividing and Transplanting Perennials

Perennial plants will always be popular in the garden because they require so little care. A perennial is a plant which has a life cycle that lasts for more than two years. Perennials grow throughout the spring and summer, die back in the fall and grow back again from their roots the following spring.

Sooner or later, many of these long-lived plants will get "too big for their britches", or you may one day decide to alter the design of the garden. Dividing or transplanting your perennials is the solution for these issues.

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How will you know when it's time for dividing perennials? Some may need to be divided every three to four years, others will quite happily grow for up to ten years before they need to be divided, and a few species don't like to be divided at all. The best thing to do is to observe the plants and let them tell you when it's time. It is time for dividing your perennials when you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • The plant is flowering less than usual and the blooms are smaller
  • Growth in the center of the plant is dying, leaving a hole in the center with growth only around the edges
  • The plant isn't growing as vigorously as it has in the past
  • The plant has outgrown its space in the garden and is becoming crowded by its neighbors

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Spring is the best time for dividing most perennials, although there are some exceptions to the rule. Perennials that bloom in the spring, such as iris and poppies, can be divided in late summer to early fall.

Some plants don't like to be divided or moved at all. These homebodies include peonies and tree peonies, foxtail lilies, bleeding hearts, goatsbeard and butterfly milkweed. Dividing these perennials should be done only when absolutely necessary.

Never divide a perennial while it is blooming as this would be too stressful for the plant. If you must move a peony, it is recommended to do so in late fall after a hard freeze, while the plant is dormant.

The first time you are dividing perennials, you're going to be nervous about it. That's natural. This process makes every gardener nervous at their first attempt. But the more you practice dividing perennials, the easier it will become. Dividing perennials is often more stressful for the gardener than for the plants.

Follow these simple steps when dividing your perennials:

  1. Start by digging around the perimeter of the plant with a sharp spade
  2. After digging all around the plant, slide your spade beneath the clump and using the spade as a lever, lift the plant out of the ground
  3. Use a sharp spade or a knife to cut the clump into smaller, more manageable plants
  4. It can be helpful to hose off some of the soil around the roots, to help you get a better view of the roots
  5. Discard any sections of the plant that are dead and trim off any damaged roots
  6. Keep the divisions moist and in the shade until they can be replanted
  7. Replant the divisions at the same depth the plant was originally growing
  8. Water the newly planted divisions well and keep them from drying out while they re-establish themselves

Transplanting perennials is very similar to dividing them, except the plant may or may not be divided at the same time it is being transplanted. If the plant needs to be relocated and it also appears that it needs to be divided, both jobs may as well be accomplished at the simultaneously. This will be less stressful on both you and the plant.

Transplanting doesn't necessarily mean that the plant will be moved to a new location. If perennial weeds have invaded the bed and threaten to choke out your beautiful plants, you may need to remove the plant, clear all the weeds and their roots from the area, and transplant the perennial right back into its original home.

Just thinking about transplanting perennials might make you nervous, but don't fret. It's really a simple process.

Timing is the key to successfully transplanting perennials. Here's a general rule of thumb that will help you determine the best time to transplant any perennial:

  • If the plant blooms in the spring, move it in the fall - September is ideal in most areas
  • If a plant blooms in the summer or fall, move it in the spring

When transplanting in the spring, start when the plant's new growth begins to appear so you'll know where and how much to dig. Plants that are being transplanted in the fall can have their foliage cut back by half just prior to moving. If the foliage is cut back, there will be less transpiration taking place and the plant will lose less moisture while it is re-establishing itself in its new home.

Cutting back the foliage will also make it easier to see where to begin digging around the plant. But don't cut back the foliage entirely. You'll want to leave some foliage and shoots so you don't mistake the area for bare ground waiting to be planted.

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Try to do fall transplanting of perennials before October. If plants are transplanted later than October 1st, they may not have enough time to establish their roots before the soil becomes so cold that root growth no longer takes place. If the plant doesn't have enough time to establish itself before winter, the freezing and thawing process over winter can cause the plant to heave, or lift out of the ground, exposing the roots to the drying effects of the cold winter winds.

Occasionally, circumstances may prevent transplanting of your perennials at the optimum time. For instance, you may be relocating your own home and wish to take some of your plants with you. If you are forced to begin transplanting perennials in the midst of the growing season, clip off any blossoms and cut back the foliage to reduce transplant shock.

Dig up as much of the rootball and surrounding soil as you possibly can and keep the uprooted plant moist and out of direct sunlight until it can be replanted. Ideally, perennials should be replanted right away after being dug up. But sometimes life gets in the way of ideal situations. If the plant is kept shaded and moist, it can survive for several weeks out of the ground. Cover the uprooted plants with a damp sheet or wet newspapers, keep them in a cool, shady area and hose them down daily until they are planted in their new home.

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In most cases, the first step in transplanting perennials is to prepare a new home for the plants. Clear the area of any weeds, dig a hole appropriate for the size of the plant and its rootball, and mix some good compost into the soil.

Next, dig up the plant just as you would if it was going to be divided, getting as much of the rootball as you can while also being careful to sever as few roots as possible. Then plant the perennial in its new home.

Always replant your perennials at the same depth they were at originally. Transplanting perennials to a deeper depth will cause the plant to bloom poorly or not at all. Refill the hole with loose soil and tamp the soil down a bit around the plant to eliminate any air pockets. Then give your plant a good drink to help it settle in, and keep the soil moist - but not soggy - as the plant re-establishes itself. A transplanted plant may look a bit worse for wear for a time, but it will come back the next season strong and happy.

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