April 24, 2013

Dividing Perennials Through Simple Division

This clump of Helenium is at the perfect stage of growth for proper division, a task which must be carefully timed if you intend to avoid any disturbance in growth.

There was a time when the bi-annual division of perennials consumed most of a gardeners time in early spring, but that was at a time when one either started perennials from seed ( I still do with some), or obtained choice varieties from a limited number of nurseries. This was a time before the internet, before mega-nurseries, before eBay. But some perennials are still difficult to track down, and so it is with many of the more beautiful helenium selections. Helenium is all-American, with most species native to the eastern half of North America. A choice perennial hoarded by those 'who know' and shunned by others who hate it, until they see one in bloom. It's one of those plants which I continually am asked to share, once visitors see it in bloom. Three or four feet tall ( unless you choose to cut it back early in the summer so that it will branch), helenium over-performs, and that's something which I never complain about as a gardener.




Helenium can help carry the perennial border through the hottest days of summer


As spring starts to arrive here in the North East, ( and a glorious spring, at that) - we gardeners are grateful for this cool, gradual introduction to summer, as it is kind to plants, and it offers us time to divide perennials such as hosta and phlox, which must be divided while only a few inches tall. In most years, I either forget to divide over-grown perennials, or I just run out of time. This year, I am already ahead of schedule, having divided a few choice hosta selections and other perennials like asters. Why divide? Well, first of all, division is essential for good health with many perennials such as aster, phlox, daylily, echium and helenium, as after thee or four years of continual growth, a sizable crown will begin to deteriorate in the center, resulting in a less than spectacular display, and if you never divide these perennials, they will eventually become weaker and weaker.

A few years ago I decided to invest in four selections of helenium, an under-rated perennial not often seen at garden centers, as it blooms in late July and early August, and come on - who goes to garden centers then! But although some of you may sneer at orange, gold or even brownish flowers, I crave their heat during these hot summer days, because they put on a spectacular display, and one that lasts for weeks. Aside from the fact that helenium are rather disease free ( sure, it can suffer with a little powdery mildew, which one can avoid if you water in the early morning), the genus is worth introducing to your perennial border.

Sure, you can plant just one, for a mature clump can be impressive alone, but I crave 'wow', so this year, I have divided my three clumps into 20 clumps ( and I love imagining what those gallon-sized containers would have cost me if I had purchased them on-line or at the garden center! I am not planting a perennial border that only someone who has won Mega Millions could!



After washing off as much soil as you can with a hose, take a sharp ( old) steak knife, and begin to remove sections. Don't be stingy, and try to cut away clusters with at least 8-10 sprouts. If you want to be frugal, you can cut out individual plants, but most perennials  prefer to have neighbors, so plan on clusters, unless this is a hosta - those you can divide into single crowns.
No fancy tools are needed, but a sharp knife will be handy. I just keep an old steak knife out in the greenhouse just for such tasks, but helenium are easy enough to divide that all you will need is a pitch fork or shovel, and your hands. I first like to use the hose to remove an much of the soil as possible, a trip I learned from  a hosta breeder, who once showed us how to propagate ( divide) an expensive hosta - one of those that cost $150. Just the sort of plant that you would want to divide into single crowns, with just a single bud to a each division. There is no need to be this frugal with helenium, but if you feel that you might need 182 divisions, feel free to go for it! I only need about 15-30 of each variety to appease my vision of massive drifts of color.


Plant crowns into fresh soil, and I like to provide them some comfort time in the greenhouse - my intensive care unit, for a week or two, but that is not necessary if you have time to plant them directly back into the garden. If you are like me, and planning to relocate your divisions into a yet-to-be-prepared new garden, you could always line them out in a raised bed where you plan to grow vegetables. I have even left them there for a year.

I repurposed some Anderson tall pots in which once houses plants from Plant Delights Nursery, which reminds me - now what would these have cost if I ordered them on-line? About $12 each in these pots! Division is by far the easiest method with plants like Helenium.

Newly divided and repotted Helenium sit in the greenhouse for a week or two, to grow new roots, and be carefully fertilized and watered as I prepare their new bed. Right now, there is much to do with planning for a garden party in two weeks, the American Primrose Society national show, and working on painting my other house next door to get it onto the market to sell. 

Since Helenium are easy to propagate, there is no reason to ever buy more than one of each variety, and then divide them every year until you have a summer display which is epic.







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