Many perennials are already up in our gardens and more are emerging every day. It may be hard, at this point, to visualize what those tiny little sprigs will look like when they have grown into tall plants. But if you reach into your memory bank of what plants were overwhelming in last year’s garden, or which ones had a dead center with growth all around it, you’ll be able to get an early start on lifting and dividing your perennials.
Early spring is the ideal time to lift and divide summer and fall flowering perennials, like hostas, liriope, black eyed Susans, Autumn Joy sedum, asters, mums, Japanese anemones and the like.
It’s not a difficult task and it’s likely that Nature will keep the plants watered for you in April. All you need is a strong back, a sharp spade, and the courage to cut into your clumps of flowers. Don’t be afraid, you really can’t kill them; perennials are more resilient than most gardeners imagine.
When the soil is fairly dry, simply dig up a clump of perennials, stick your spade into it and cut it in half, and then divide the halves into as many pieces as you want to replant or share with friends. If you are making a new flower bed for the divisions, prepare your soil in advance, for the less time the plants spend out of the ground, the better.
Mums, coral bells and lamb’s ears, in particular, develop dead brown centers as the clumps age. Simply discard the dead center of the plant and plant the live divisions. If it’s got roots attached, it’s a new plant.
Old hostas can be a bear to divide as they get woody as they age. After you lift the plant, hose the soil off the roots, and soak the clump of hostas in a bucket of water for at least an hour, to soften the stems. They will be easier to divide after soaking and you may even be able to pull the divisions apart with your hands. If not, take the spade to them and don’t be afraid to cut off some leaves. More will grow.
Spring blooming perennials should ideally be divided after they bloom, but if you lift them early enough, meaning now, you can divide them too. This is true of peonies and Siberian iris, if you don’t mind sacrificing a little bloom. Peony eyes (they look just like potato eyes on the peony tuber) should be set no more than an inch below the soil surface, so don’t bury the plants if you want them to bloom. Siberian iris can get the same water softening treatment as hostas, since they too have very fibrous stems.
This is also a good time to weed out or rearrange the self sowers in your garden. Do you have too many money plants or forget me nots? If you can use them elsewhere, lift the plants while they are small and move them to some new locations. If not, plant them in some spring pots and then dump them after they finish blooming.
Right about now, we should also pay attention to our summer flowering shrubs. Butterfly bushes can be cut back to about two feet tall. Don’t cut off all the new wood and just leave the thick old wood. I’ve killed butterfly bushes by doing this. Leave some of the younger stems on, even if it means not cutting back so hard. Caryopteris can be cut back now to 18 to 24 inches. The same rules apply to caryopteris.
If you haven’t gotten around to cutting back your red twig dogwoods, ornamental grasses and liriope yet, hop on it. New growth will be emerging shortly and it’s easier if you can cut the old growth back without having to worry about cutting the new as well.
Early spring weeds have begun. Chickweed is already blooming. If you pull it out before it goes to seed, you’ll have far less weeds in the fall, when chickweed emerges again. If you ignore it and let it disappear when the weather turns hot, you will truly be sorry this fall. Countless seedless will emerge with a vengeance!
Most of all, while you’re out working in your garden, enjoy this absolutely beautiful time of year. So many spring trees, shrubs and bulbs are in bloom, the birds are singing, the sky is blue, and a gentle spring breeze is blowing. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.