Divide perennials in early spring

The best time of year to divide perennial flowers is early spring just as their new shoots begin to peek up through the soil. That time is right now.

Gardeners have different reasons why they might want to divide their perennials. Maybe the plant is getting too old or too big for the space they’ve been growing in. Another gardener may want to  build up the number of plants they have to expand their planting. Still another may want to give away hard-to-find plants to friends.

From a practical point of view, dividing perennials is most often done because the plants age and their flower displays start to wane. As a perennial plant grows, it adds new growth to the outer portion of the clump of plants. This works fine for the gardener up to a point. Eventually the clump expands so much with new growth that the center of the clump will turn woody and non-productive.  That’s when dividing needs to be done to revive the plant.

It’s the new growth area of a plant clump that you want to save. You do this by removing the new growth from the old, replanting it and discarding the old portion.

Start by using a garden fork to loosen the soil all the way around the plant before you do any actual digging. Then use a garden spade to cut the clump into pieces small enough to handle, usually in thirds or quarters. If you cut too small of a piece, the new plant may not be able to compete very easy with the other existing plants and you’ll spend extra time nursing it through the season.

Some fine-rooted perennials like dianthus can be separated just using your hands. For tougher plants you’ll need help from a spade or garden fork. One trick I use is to take two garden forks placed back to back into the root area. Then push against the handles to lever the clump apart.

Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.
Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.

Lift up the cut part of the plant you want to move and clean off all dead leaves and any broken or damaged plant parts. By the way, this would be an excellent time to add compost, fertilizer or any other soil amendments to the area before you set the plants.

For fastest plant recovery, plant the clump right away in your newly prepared spot. Set the plant at the same level it was originally growing and water it in well, don’t skimp on this first watering. Take any left over clumps and pot them up to give away to friends and family. You don’t have to be too picky about potting them if the recipient is going to plant them soon.

Spring dividing is mostly for summer-flowering perennials like asters or sedum.  Those that bloom in the spring, like peonies or columbine are best divided in the fall.


Using wood ashes in the garden

If you enjoy regularly using your fireplace or wood stove, you know that a fair amount of wood ashes can be accumulated over a heating season. Under the right circumstances, those ashes can be an excellent fertilizer for your garden.

Wood ashes contain about ten percent potassium, one of the three major elements needed by plants to grow and survive. That is a relatively high percentage of potassium for a no-cost,naturally occurring material that is easily available. It doesn’t need to be mined from the ground, packed and shipped long distances to a garden center.

Many natural sources of potassium like greensand release their nutrients very slowly over a period of moths or years. Wood ash potassium is in a form that is very water soluble making it immediately available for plants to use. Because of this high solubility, potassium is quickly lost if the ashes are stored where it can be rained on. The rain water essentially washes away the potassium, so it’s important to store ashes in a dry area.

Calcium, at about sixty percent, is the other major constituent of ashes. It is in the form of calcium carbonate, the same compound that makes up agricultural limestone. When soil pH is too low, the soil chemistry changes to the point where the nutrients are no longer available to the plants. So farmers and gardeners add limestone to raise the pH to the optimum for plant growth.

Ashes contain trace amounts of micro-nutrients too. Those are essential nutrients that are needed for plant growth but only in tiny amounts compered to the three major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Depending on soil conditions about thirty to one hundred pounds of limestone is commonly added to a thousand square feet of garden. However, only about three to ten pounds of wood ashes are required to do the same thing, about one-tenth the amount. Why is that so if wood ashes and limestone are both made of calcium carbonate? It’s because the particles of wood ashes are so small that the calcium is immediately  available while even finely ground limestone has to break down even further in order to work.

Wood ashes work so quickly to raise soil pH that there is a danger that the soil pH can quickly get too high and cause other problem for your plants. It’s always a good idea to check your garden’s soil pH to get an idea on how much wood ashes to apply.



Start pruning fruit trees early

It’s tempting to prune fruit trees in early March especially on warm, sunny days when were out in the yard looking for some thing to do. Usually it’s fine to do so, but I like to wait to prune until after the chance of freezing rain has past.

A heavy accumulation of ice during an ice storm is liable to break off branches from fruit trees. That can be a real problem if a major scaffold branch is lost.

In many cases the tree can grow new scaffold branch from existing nearby shoots. It’s the gardeners job to select which shoot would make the best replacement. If you do all your pruning early, you greatly reduce the number of shoots available for growing the replacement branch.

You can however to do part of your pruning now and save the rest for later without losing any potentially valuable wood. Early March is a very good time to prune off all of the water sprouts that have grown from during the previous season.

Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.
Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.

During a severe ice storm, ice can add from ten to one hundred times the weight the weight that branches have to support. High winds make it even more hazardous for the trees. By removing water sprouts you drastically reduce the surface area for ice to collect, lightening the load that fruit trees branches have to bear. One quarter to one half inch of ice can cause small branches to begin breaking. Taking off the sprouts also reduces the amount of area for the wind to push against.

Water sprouts need to be pruned off eventually as a regular part of fruit tree pruning. They reduce much needed air circulation making conditions more conducive to diseases. With their rank growth, they also keep sunlight from reaching the fruiting parts of the tree.

During a normal year we can expect four or five days when ice accumulates and usually is not enough to do much damage. But every ten to twenty years or so we get a major ice event and that’s when trees get damaged.  By doing your fruit tree pruning in two stages you can buy yourself a little extra insurance against major tree damage.

Maybe you’ve seen pruning being done in large commercial orchards as early as February. They prune that early because of the sheer number of trees that need to be pruned and don’t have the time to go through the orchard twice.