Before buying new plants, try shopping in your own garden

Erin Schanen

Plants are on the move. Perhaps you’ve even seen the colorful semi tractor trailer emblazoned with petunias or hydrangeas making their way down the road to garden centers that will be filled with gorgeous plants to fill a garden.

But before you fill that shopping cart, do a little shopping in your own yard, where, for the price of your labor, you can find free plants galore simply by dividing what you have.

It’s an excellent time to divide many perennials. The ground is soft and plants that are just waking up may not even notice they’ve been moved.

The method of division depends on how the plant grows. Plants with a fiberous root system such as lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) or big root geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) can be pried apart with two garden forks set back to back in the middle of the clump. After the main mass is separated, smaller divisions can often be pulled out.

Older perennials will often create a doughnut effect in which the middle dies out. This can be discarded when dividing, saving only the vigorous outer growth to replant.

Some perennials, like a gnarly old hosta, require a more aggressive approach. Dig the whole clump up, stick your sharpest spade in the center and then tromp on the spade like it’s leg day at the gym. Further divisions can be made the same way. Hostas can grow from an eye or shoot but are much fuller in the garden with more.

You can divide perennials, particularly the tough ones mentioned here, before you even see grow emerging. As long as you can find them, you can divide them. This is another reason to delay garden cleanup until spring since last year’s stems serve as a marker of still dormant plants.

I did some hasty moving and dividing during my first spring weekend in the garden. It was more of a rescue mission to save perennials from an area where a tree and its stump will soon be removed. Among the plants I liberated were several clumps of Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger.’ Planted less than two years ago from 2-inch plugs, each clump was 10 inches or more in diameter. I divided all of them into four plants each and spread the shady groundcover in areas of the garden most susceptible to weed intrusion, where it will fight a valiant battle against creeping Charlie and other foes.

Carex sedges are cool-season growers so they are good candidates for division now, but many other popular ornamental grasses should be left until it’s warmer and you see new growth. Only then is it safe to dig and divide these, a task that you’ll need that leg-day training for since some grasses get enormous.

Fortunately most plants are much easier to tackle, which makes getting new plants from your own garden a job that can actually be pleasurable. Just think of it as having your very own plant truck that pulls up, without the fancy paint job.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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