For perennials, it's time to transplant Autumn: When flowering stops in the fall, divide hearty bulb clusters and move plants that haven't done well or looked good to a more hospitable location.

September 29, 1996|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I think I was an interior designer for too long. I am never afraid to move plants around in the garden if they do not suit me, much as other people move sofas, chairs, tables, etc., Luckily, this does not hurt the plants. Then again, who ever had furniture that grew?

If I see a plant that has not done well with its neighbors, I move it to a better location. I may find that the ornamental fountain grass, which looked so bewitching last fall, has outgrown its place by the herbs, and needs a new home. Or that some new day lilies are much shorter than they were advertised to be, and I want to move them to a place at the front of the border. Early fall is a great time to move around flowers and other herbaceous (a fancy word for hardy perennial) plants, as long as they are not flowering.

At this time, there is less weed competition, and you can take advantage of the fact that your perennials are well-grown specimens, and will have the upper hand against any new weeds. Moreover, this is a wonderful excuse to do a thorough seasonal weeding and mulching to get everything set for the winter.

Fresh memories

Fall transplanting is especially useful because the appearance of the plants is still fresh in the gardener's mind. It is infinitely easier to rearrange plants now than it will be six months down the road, when all you have are little stumps sticking out of the ground.

When you can see only two inches of a plant pushing through the daffodils, it really is difficult to remember just how much room a mature rudbeckia, iris or phlox requires. Also, will you truly be able to recall which day lily is the sulfur yellow that bTC clashes with the others, or where the white liatris are when you haven't seen them for months?

Then, too, you may find that you want to divide up some of your larger perennials at this time. This is easily done in most cases.

My favorite weapon for this operation is an old kitchen knife, the sharper the better, to make clean cuts.

After you dig up the perennial clump, use the knife to cut it into sections. Often you will notice that the leaves and roots form natural divisions, like the part in a person's hair. You can use these as guidelines. Make the sections on the generous side: remember the plant has to have enough reserves to make it through the winter. I find that pieces about the size of a man's fist or a grapefruit do nicely.

If you run into a tough customer, as many ornamental grasses are, and can't manage to cut it apart with just the knife, get a friend to help you. Have the other person hold the plant on the ground and pull the foliage back along the line where you want to split it. Then you can take a spade or shovel and work it down through the clump to cut it.

Pulling plants apart should truly be only a last resort. No matter how gently you do it, you may tear the roots and traumatize the plant much more than cutting will. Even irises and day lilies, which break easily at the ends of the tuber-like rhizomes, are better off being cut.

If you have spring-blooming bulbs in your beds, this is also an excellent time to take them up and gently separate the clusters into individual bulbs before replanting them as desired. If you want to add bulbs to your garden, it will certainly be less complicated to put them where you want them now, when you are already digging things up and transplanting, than it will be when everything is settled again.

Good soil, strong plants

Give your plants good, fertile, well-drained soil, and they will behave handsomely when moved. As always, the better prepared the soil, the better the plants will respond.

Dig as deeply as you can to loosen the ground without disturbing existing planting. Do not give your plants much fertilizer this late in the year. A couple of tablespoons of bone meal and some compost worked in around each plant are all they need. In fact, all gardens benefit from having some bone meal and compost worked in the top couple of inches of soil at this time of year.

If the plant you are moving is in flower, cut off the flowers or it will not root well. Given a choice between flowering and ripening the seeds of the next generation, or putting down roots to preserve itself, a perennial will normally put all its energy into the seeds. Alas, it is not strong enough to do both.

It is also advisable to cut back the leaves and old flower stalks by about a third, so the plant will have less top growth to support, and can focus on establishing roots. Do not cut off too much, however, or it may respond by sending up a lot of new growth to compensate, which will sap its strength.

If you have questions about transplanting, check the gardening encyclopedias at your local library or call the Home and Garden Information Center ([800] 342-2507). For most herbaceous plants, though, fall is a fine time for transplanting.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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