Transplanting Perennials and Hardwoods, Practical Gardening


October is a lovely time of year for dividing and transplanting in your gardens. The urgency of spring gives way to a slower pace of planning.

There are many reasons to divide perennials: to keep them healthy and free of diseases, to have more plants, keep them contained to an area, to open up space.

  • Many perennials grow quickly and develop clumps. If the clumps are not divided every 3-4 years, the centers can die out. (Note: with many ornamental grasses this donut effect is due to high pruning—ornamental grasses should be trimmed to ground level.)
  • When perennials become overcrowded, flower production declines or ceases. The perennial may appear stunted if they are in desperate need of dividing—in which case, you’ve waited too long and will need to remember to divide sooner next time.
  • Some perennials are aggressive, nearly weedy in their growth habit—oh the sins of Lily of the Valley! Those with a vigorous growth habit should be divided (often every other year) to keep them in balance and not overrun the garden.
  • Dividing your perennials allows you to use more of the same variety (especially those that are hybrids without viable seeds) throughout your gardens, and to share with friends.

Transplanting herbaceous plants is usually best done in the spring or fall Follow this link to a Garden Gate Tip’s Sheet on what to move when.

In autumn cut plants back before digging them for division. I prefer to divide in the fall because the plants have more time to set new roots before growing into summer’s heat. Fall bloomers are divided and transplanted in the spring.

Fine Gardening offers this advice on technique:

To lift a perennial with minimal root damage, begin digging at its drip line. The roots will generally extend that far, so digging there lets you lift the plant with most of its roots intact.

Dig a trench around the clump, cleanly severing any roots, then cut at an angle down and under the clump from various points around the outer edge until you can lever the plant out of the hole. For large, heavy plants, you may have to first dig the trench, and then slice straight down through the center of the plant as if it was a pie, halving or quartering the clump before under­cutting and lifting it.

If you find that you will be moving perennials when it’s hot and sunny, anticipate the potential for excessive transplant shock and protect your plants from too much sunlight, heat and wind until they are established.

Trees and shrubs grow roots beyond what can be realistically moved. To prepare hardwoods for transplanting, and develop new roots in a smaller area, they need to be root pruned. Established trees and shrubs—I’m talking bigger than the potted ones from big box stores—to be moved in the autumn should be root pruned in March. If you know which mature hardwood you want to move, tag it now to be pruned early spring and moved next October. Clemson University has an excellent article on transplanting established trees and shrubs.

I check the weather report for the week following an anticipated transplanting date, and look for a day of rainy, at least cloudy, weather. I will transplant late afternoon the day before a rain. The rains will take the place of hand watering and the high humidity will reduce the stress on the plant, and allows roots to set well in damp soil.

Plan ahead for moving plants, prepare and be attentive after the uprooting. After the wilt, new buds will emerge!

(Photo by pippalou at )


Forcing Bulbs for Preseason Color, Practical Gardening

file0002136272075When I plant containers of bulbs in the fall, I am thinking about the color they will bring indoors during late winter days or as outdoor focal points early next spring.

To force a bulb means that you are manipulating its environment so that it will bloom out of season. Before spring flowering bulbs can be forced to flower in a container, they require a cold period of 12-15 weeks at temperatures between 38°-48°. This allows production of a good root system. A spare refrigerator is excellent for chilling the potted bulbs.  I have even used my basement window wells and covered the pots with a heavy layer of straw…much to the delight of the field mice!

Paperwhite Narcissus and Amaryllis do not need to be cooled when you buy them. They have already been prepped for forcing by the supplier. Plant them as directed, set them in a sunny location, and let nature take its course. Paperwhites can also be grown in water, much like hyacinths.

Hyacinth bulbs are first chilled in a doubled paper bag for 13 weeks and then set in a special water vase to grow; the basal plate of the bulb must touch the water for the roots to start developing. To prevent diseases, Hyacinth bulbs are treated with an agent that will irritate skin. Be sure to wear thin plastic gloves and wash after handling.

Forcing spring bulbs in a container is simple. Select a container from 6-24” wide with good drainage. Fill 2/3rd full with a good potting mix; do not use garden soil or fertilizer. Plant the bulbs so they almost touch each other and cover with more potting mix, leaving about a half an inch from the top. Tag your pot with start date and cultivar. Water the container and place it in a cold (38°-48°) dark location for the duration. Check it periodically to be sure the mix has remained damp, but not wet. Too wet and the bulbs will rot.

If you have a beautiful container or basket you want to use when your bulbs start blooming, find a plastic pot that will fit inside it. Plant and chill the bulbs in this plastic pot. When the time is right, place the pot with a saucer inside the container and set in a sunny location

The number of bulbs for a 6” pot: narcissus, 3 large bulbs and up to 6 if smaller bulbs are being used; paperwhites or tulips, 5-6; hyacinths, 3; minor bulbs like muscari or crocus, 12-15.

For a 24” pot and using a single kind of bulb you will need up to 50 tulips or smaller narcissus, or 30 of the larger flowering narcissus, and possibly 80-100 of the minor bulbs.

When using one kind of bulb per container, create several containers with staggered blooming periods. You can also plant an assortment of bulbs in one larger container but be sure they have the same bloom period. When using an assortment of bulbs, plan on layering them in the container. Plant the larger bulbs deeper and first, add potting mix and then place the next layer of bulbs on top and add more mix. End with the minor bulbs planted closer to the edges, keeping mix a half inch from top.

As time draws near for removing your containers from the cold treatment, you may see pale whitish tips emerging. This is the start of your bulbs, and once placed in the light, they will soon begin photosynthesis and turn green. It won’t be much longer and your blooms will emerge for the long awaited color!


Big Difference in Naturalizing and Perennializing Bulbs, Practical Gardening



Well, autumn is upon us and it’s nearly time for planting spring bulbs.

Let’s start this column with definitions that will help you get a handle on nomenclature: True bulbs contain their leaves and flowering parts inside. These include tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Corms carry their leaf parts on the outside to support interior bud development and include crocuses and gladiolas. Rhizomes like Canna lilies and iris form leaves and buds from a growing end or tip. Tubers, like potatoes, have “eyes” that develop roots, leaves, and flowers and include dahlias, anemones and ranunculus.

For the purpose of brevity, I will group all of these together and call them bulbs. From last week’s column, you learned about tender bulbs that are not winter hardy in our Zone 5. This second column on bulbs (with a third one next week) discusses hardy bulbs that spread.

There is a difference between naturalizing bulbs and perennializing bulbs—especially when talking about tulips. A naturalizing bulb will return year after year and multiplies, spreading out into the garden. A perennializing bulb grows and blooms for a few years with the bulb possibly increasing in size but not spreading.

Most hybrid tulips are perennializers—note that, perennializers. They look amazing for maybe two of years and then you are left with only leaves.

Species or botanical tulips, including Tulipa bakeri (aka saxatillis), T. batalinii, T. clusiana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii, T. humilis (adorabvle!), T. kaufmanniana are excellent candidates for naturalizing as are Darwin Hybrids. Some cultivars have mottled or variegated leaves, others have bi-colored blooms, and range in height from a demure 12” greigii to the sturdy 24” Darwins. I’m partial to the spreading T. greigii because of their adorable leaves and their ability to hold their petals longer on wide flowering faces.

Nearly all cultivars of Narcissus are naturalizers. Dwarf and species daffodils are excellent for rock garden because they are often more petite; Tete-a-Tete looks like its larger yellow cousins, and Minnow, my favorite of the dwarfs, is a dainty multi-blossom white with a yellow corolla.

Another good bulb for use in rock gardens is the species crocus. It and the Dutch crocus will both naturalize easily. Other smaller bulbs that will spread, and sometimes quickly, are: Glory-of-the-snow, Chinodoxa; Snowdrops, Galanthus; Summer Snowflake, Leaucojum; Grape Hyacinth, Muscari, and Wood Hyacinth, Scillia; and the precious Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum.

I love the looks of a grassy area dappled in these smaller spring bulbs. My grandmother’s front lawn was planted this way. If you have a lawn that you do not treat with weed-and-feed, try growing these harbingers of spring. Mow your lawn really short late in the autumn, and then plant groups of bulbs according to directions. After they have flowered in the spring, wait as long as possible to mow again, or do as grandpa use to—mow around the small clumps for a while so the leaves have a chance to nourish the bulbs.

Van Bloem Gardens, a Dutch supplier, recommends that naturalized plantings should blend in with the existing landscape and mimic nature. To achieve this, lay out your planting areas so they follow the contours of your land and be generous with the size of the areas to be planted. The impact of your planting will be much greater if you have several large areas of naturalized bulbs than if you have lots of small areas. Naturalized plantings look best when they are planted densely in the center then feather out to fewer bulbs at the edges of the planting. And finally, swaths of one solid color generally have greater visual appeal than drifts of mixed colors.


Summit Climbing


I remembered being light headed and giddy. The man who had brought me to that secluded place held me tight as we leaned against the rocks of an adjoining mountainside. The air tickled my lungs in a way that a city girl—I was from Detroit—rarely experienced. There was a purity and thinness between where we stood on the alpine tundra, and God.

I had taken the summer off before beginning a graduate program at Michigan State University. He was a friend of a friend, a geologist, and worked as an oil drilling engineer—of sorts. He lived in Colorado and part of his job was hiking and surveying the land his company thought productive for drilling. He and his sister had planned several backwoods hiking adventures for the summer and he’d offered to fly me out to join them.

I had done a lot of hiking, cross-country skiing, and canoe portages around the Great Lakes. Not until that summer, over thirty-five years ago, had I seen mountains. We backpacked several trails throughout the Rockies, Tetons, Pikes Peak, and the Big Horn. What I experienced that summer was exhilarating and grueling. And I had thought myself fit! One such hike took us from a sweltering near ninety degrees at the ranger’s station, to snow gear a day and a half up a mountain.

Those memories came forward during morning prayers while reading a reflection in Magnificat (Aug 2014, p.52) by Sherry A. Weddell. Her description of Pike’s Peak Barr Trail sent my thoughts to wandering along rocky paths, sitting on cliffs bordering raging rivers, through forests, and gasping at the sight of being surrounded by alpine tundra wildflowers.

Sherry wrote of the challenges to reach Pike’s Peak summit on foot.

A small child could be carried up Pikes Peak, but adults cannot simply wander up to the summit casually, much less passively. They have to spend some seriously strenuous hours covering nearly thirteen miles…nearly five thousand feet through foothills, the montane (forest), and then the sub-alpine zone before climbing another three thousand feet beyond the tree line.

The air at the summit is thin, having less oxygen. The farther one goes hiking the trail, the more challenging the journey becomes. I remembered this from personal experience. I had not been trained, physically conditioned, in high-altitude environments, so for my safety hiking up only went so far.  Even at that I’d felt the mild side of mountain sickness—lightheadedness. To reach a summit is not, as Sherry said, a casual thing. Learning and conditioning come first in order to persevere in thin air.

It is to that intentionality that she speaks regarding Communion:

I don’t think it is an accident that the Church uses the metaphor of a summit to convey the significance of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is described as the summit, the apex, and the pinnacle of the Christian life….Just as we have actively to climb a mountain summit, we have to make an intentional journey, properly prepared, fully to receive the inexhaustible grace to be found in the Eucharistic Christ.

Any mountain climber or backwoods hiker will tell you, preparation is everything.

With that, let us pray that through the intercession of St. Bernard of Menthon for the protection of all who travel in the mountains of this earth, and the mountains in our souls, that they be granted strength and fortitude as they seek. Amen



Off with Their Heads! Deadheading for Reblooming, Practical Gardening


Like most gardeners I like a lot of flowers all season.  If you’re not a fan of annuals, you probably search for the few perennials that bloom all summer. You can also extend the bloom period of perennials by deadheading.

Deadheading is the maintenance practice of removing spent flowers. By deadheading you keep the plants looking tidy, redirect the plant’s energy from seed production to roots and top growth, minimize reseeding, and for most perennials prolong the flowering period for a couple of weeks. Extending a blooming period is different than remontant blooming where a cultivar is designed to “remount” with blossoms a second time in the season without our intervention, i.e. specific cultivars of Daylilies or the yellow Corydalis.

Deadheading can range from a daily activity to every couple of weeks depending on seasonal temperatures, rainfall, and the species. Often times when I wandered through my (small) backyard in the morning, coffee cup in hand, I’d find myself snapping off spent flowers.  I felt less overwhelmed by doing this task daily.

Your queue will be the overall appearance of the perennial as flowers decline. But don’t wait too long to deadhead, unless you are saving seeds. When spent flowers become seed heads, chemical changes occur that can halt flower production.

There are several perennials that produce flowers along their stems and on a spike that can have their blooming period extended by deadheading.

To deadhead perennials that produce flowers along their stem, known as laterally, cut just below the spent flower at the first set of leaves or next bud. A few common perennials with both terminal and lateral flowering are Bee Balm (Monarda), Blanket Flower (Gaillardia), Coneflower (Echinacea), False Sunflowers (Heliopsis), Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum) and Stokes’ Aster (Stokesia).

There are several perennials that flower from the bottom up on single or multi-branching spikes. The single flowering spike should be deadheaded when about three quarters of the stem has finished blooming. Cut it off at the same junction as mentioned above. In the case of multi-branching spikes, like Globe Thistle (Echinops) or Hollyhock (Alcea), each flower head and its stem can be removed to the central spike. A few common perennials with spiked flowers are Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum), Delphinium, Foxglove (Digitalis), Lupine, Miniature Hollyhock (Sidalcea) and Spiked Speedwell (Veronica).

Deadheading flowers of one-time bloomers keeps them looking good but does not prolong the flowering. Some of the more recognizable single-season bloomers are Bergenia, Bleeding Heart (Dicentra), most Coral Bells (Heuchera), most Daylilies (Hemerocallis), Hosta, Iris, Lamb’s Ear (Stachys) and Rose Mallow (Hibiscus). Daylilies and Iris can be groomed daily but you will also need to remove the spent flowering stalks.

Another method of deadheading is shearing. This is done when masses of flowers die back all at once, as with thread leaf Coreopsis. With one hand gathering up the spent blooms and with the other clip off the stems and part of the upper leaf cover using garden scissors. Perennial Geranium (not the annual Pelargonium, aka Zonal) and Salvia can be cut back almost to the ground to produce a second flowering. This method may look messy, but all will look fine in a few days.

It’s no secret on how to have longer lasting color from your perennials…just give ‘em a pinch!