What side of the debate were you on this fall?

While much of the country is focused on the mid-term elections, two opposing camps of gardeners are lining up this fall.  Each side has compelling reasons why they are right and the other side is wrong. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

One side is more, you might say, traditional in their approach to preparing perennial beds for winter. Those gardeners remove all of this year’s dead plant material from the garden and dispose of it by composting or other means. They claim that removing dead material now, in the fall, creates a clean slate for new growth in the spring. Tender new growth will less likely be damaged than if you try to remove last year’s growth when the plant is actively growing in the spring.

Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.
Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.

The other group says, “We care about birds”. They leave all of their plant growth untouched in the fall. All of that tangled up mass of plant stems provides valuable cover for wild song birds that over-winter. This group feels they have a responsibility to the wider ecological community when gardening. Many perennials produce seeds each fall. Leaving those old flower stalks up, they say, provides an addition food source for birds.

Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.
Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.

Leaving the garden alone in the fall has some other, less tangible benefits. All of that debris tends to collect and hold snow in place providing a natural insulating blanket. The protective snow cover can reduce the chance of freeze damage or frost heaving in some years. Not only that, the stalks provide an attractive visual element to the winter landscape as well, claims the leave-it-be group.

Gardeners on the other side counter those arguments claiming by the time they start clearing their gardens, the birds have already eaten virtually all of the seeds. Their small plot of flowers would not provide any really usable cover for birds either, they say. And who wants to look at a messy garden area all winter anyway? Not only that, spring is busy enough without having to do all the work you should have done last fall.

So every fall die-hard gardeners endlessly debate the merits of their position. I’m not really sure how often one breaks ranks and joins the other side, probably not very often.

Bob

 

 

 

 

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.

Bob