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Garden column: Landscaping is cheap when you grow your own

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass
ALL |

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Let me state the obvious. We’ve had some rain – good rains – slow, steady soaking rains.

If I were a visitor, and I’d just saved for 50 weeks in order to visit my absolute favorite ski resort for a week in summer (The other week I’m skiing here), I’d be thinking there’s a whole lot of mud out there where I want to be hiking, biking, fishing, and rafting.

My advice to the discomfited is to shop, take in a show and a world-class dinner, or switch to nymphs trailing a purple or red San Juan worm (“draggin’ a ball and chain”) and fish the blown out rivers in the smooth water downstream from a chute, or go rafting – you’re going to get wet anyway.



But I’m not visiting here. I live here, and I’m tickled pink. There is no drought in the Vail valley. Hallelujah! Let’s go ahead and be generous and send poquito mas agua downstream to Lake Powell.

But wait, life gets better still. The soil is well moistened – in late summer no less; consequently, the timing is ripe for propagating perennial plants from your gardens. Landscaping is cheap when you can grow your own.



This is a unique opportunity. We’re wet in early August, by golly, which means we can expect to hang some roots on perennial plants divided from our own gardens with every expectation of success abloom in our gardens next spring. My advice to the locals: strike while the soil is cool and wet.

There’s more to the alignment of the planets here than simply a good rain or two. This is a harmonic convergence. We’ve had a cool summer that has enabled our plants to grow with little heat stress and therefore little dormancy and hardening. We’ve had dry spells that stretched plants to the limits of development, but rain has always arrived in time so as not to damage the basic structures that plants rely on to thrive. We’ve got plenty of time remaining for plants to root in before winter. In short, we’ve got some healthy perennial stock plants to divide just in time for them to re-establish themselves.

So what are we looking for? I mean everybody knows that daylilies and hostas can be divvied up. Those two plants can be dug and scattered about with some measure of success by an infant during a 100-year drought. The questions are, what else can we chop up and expect to grow, and how do you do it?



Well, I can give you a list, but that would be about the same as handing you a fish. I’d rather describe the waters to be fished, and what to throw at them in search of fish when you find the right waters.

Take a walk in your garden – soon. It’s going to dry up sooner rather than later and we need to lift some plants within, I’m guessing, the next week. On your walk think like a pro, think like a person whose next check comes from turning one plant into many despite the fact that one has never before thought about propagating whatever it is that’s about to be dug up. Don’t be timid. It’s a waste of time.

Check for perennial plants that appear to have many stems coming from the ground. Plants that have one distinct stem can be divided, uh, never mind, they can’t be divided.

Plants with multiple stems emerging from the ground can appear to have one stem, though. Pull the foliage back. Look closely. Does the soil beneath the plant seem to bulge upward? Are what you thought to be branches actually thin stems jutting from the ground next to the central stem? If so, let’s get ready to dig it up.

But, but, wait a minute – is that all there is to it? What if what we dig up dies?

Yes, that’s all there is to it. Yes, your prized plant could wind up being a failed experiment. I’m encouraging gambling. With plants as the stakes, most likely you have more to gain than you have to lose. If you feel you have more to lose than you have to gain, don’t dig. I’m not covering the losses.

However, if you want your backyard to have all the depth and color of an opening night at a Chinese Olympics, you’ll need patience, or deep pockets, or the willingness to risk 10 bucks to gain a hundred. Here’s how to play the game.

Buy some 4″ pots – or plastic cups. (If you buy the cups, poke a quarter-inch hole in the bottom) Fill them to the very top with a peat-based potting soil. Don’t pack the peat in. Air in soil is good.

Grab your shears. Whack the plant you plan to divide off about 4-inches above the soil, or, when in doubt, cut it off above the bottom two nodes – the spot where a leaf or branch sprouts from the stem. When digging daylilies or hostas, keep it simple; just whack them four inches above the ground.

Next, grab your spade. Place the blade about two inches away from the stems of the plant you plan to dig and step straight down until the shovel blade is buried. Do this all the way around the plant. Then, using the shovel blade, lift up the roots. Knock the soil off. With most plants you can get away with using a little extra vigor when knocking off soil. With less than a modicum of sensitivity, you can see and feel the fragility of a plant before you start bashing it about. Gauge your vigor accordingly.

Once the bulk of the soil has fallen away, grab a hatchet or a butcher knife and cut the root ball off just about an inch below the fleshiest part of the roots. Next, stop. Take a look at how all the stems and roots are hooked up. Much of the time you can tease out a whole stem, roots, leaves, and all and have one little plantlet.

If not, sometimes if you chop the whole thing in half, it becomes more evident how to wrestle the roots apart. It’s a puzzle. Use your hands to tug, twist, and pull the root ball apart. You can feel when the plant is breaking as opposed to the roots. Obviously, it’s important to keep the plant stem attached to the roots.

If it seems evident to you that the whole thing is impossible to deconstruct, then cut the root ball into quarters and plant the quarters. You’ll be surprised. This is not rocketry. This is gardening. It’s dirty work.

Plant the chunks, plantlets, or roots into the pots by poking or wriggling them down to their original planting depth. Soak the pots to saturation. Place them in the shade and check on them once a day. Feed them at the next watering when the soil becomes the color of dry coffee grounds. Mist the plants if they begin to wilt. Wilt is going to be difficult to see because you’ve chopped most of the foliage off. Then again, that’s why you chopped the foliage off. So the roots don’t have to support the entire plant.

You can worry the plant starts for the next three weeks, but, if you start within the week, I’m betting you will be planting multiple divisions by Labor Day weekend.


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