Divide and Conquer

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

    In late summer 1998, I visited the world's premier collection of bamboos housed at Quail Botanic Garden in San Diego, and it started me thinking.  I was impressed by the attitude of the stewards, volunteers mostly, who make me it their business to cultivate the place: every clump well-defined, runners neatly kempt, all plants labeled.  I reveled in the bamboos: huge ones, tiny ones, yellow, purple, and every shade of green on sturdy jointed specimens of the 'world's most useful plant'.  But, it was still Bambusa, including B. glaucescens, that nemesis of so many southern gardens.  Like Chinese privet, it's an escapee from the days when anything considered slightly exotic got planted without concern for its impact on the plants around it.  Our growing conditions are more than ideal for these plants.  I truly believe if you excavated the top six inches of all th esoil in the Southeast, most of it would contain the underground runners of privet and bamboo.  Sherman did less damage in my opinion, since flora returns quickly after fire, but can disappear altogether when choked out by these aggressive gangsta girls.
     So I was torn, appreciating a magnificent collection of plants I have great prejudices against.  What's next?  A trip to the finest collection of those whitefly condominiums, a forest of green and varigated euonymous??

     Herewith, a declaration of sorts:  We in the South do things differently -- we say ya'll, eat grits, and consider shoes a winter sort of thing, unless there's a funeral or indoor wedding to attend.  If we took traditional garden advice literally (handly gently, make one slice to cut, always include one piece of the crown), we'd never get our hardiest perennials divided.  Lucky for us, little of our digging and hacking ever makes it to videotape; as long as the plants grow well, we're ok.  These tips for fall perennial care come from many smart gardeners.  Since much of this advice sounds like ruthless heresy, no sources will be identified.  Try some yourself and feel free to send us your own, we'll keep your secrets, too.
     Don't dig up everything: a three year old perennial needs to be dug 1) when it fails to bloom 2) when the clumb is so tightly packed with growth it almost heaves out of the ground 3) when the perennial bullies its companions in the bed by spreading too much.
     Some perennials die out in the center and send new plants up on runners around or nearby.  Dig up the offsets with a sharp trowel and plane one or two in the middle after you work in what's left of the mother plant.
     Dig up the whole clump before you try to divide it, except for old monkey grass or densely vining groundcovers like Vincia Major.  With these vigorous (some might say vicious) examples, sharpen your shovel and and chop out sections to replant elsewhere.  The remainging plants will fill in over one season.  To try and divide these conventionally will result in too many plants and a huge pharmacy bill after you get done at the back doctor.
     Pot up any small offsets or divisions and grow on until spring; otherwise they'll likely rot in a wet winter.
     Center your attention on the roots and soil; here lies the beating heart of a perennial.  Unless the soil crumbles easily, water the day before or at least the morning before you dig.
     Dig with a shovel, shake the clump with a forked spade, and use your gloved hand to break it apart (if possible).  To grow, each new plant must have some top growth, part of the crown, and some roots.
     When it's not possible to break the plants apart, you must cut them, so choose the right tool for the job.  Garden shears or kitchen knives may work for some plants, but most of us prefer a sharp machete, cane knife, or folding saw.
     Work smart: put the clump on a cart, bench, or table for cutting.  Knock off excess soil and always cut away from your body.  Don't hold that clump between your knees while sawing away on it!

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