Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Divide to Multiply

The first question any gardener should ask is "Do I have any plants that can be divided?" as not all plants can or should be. Herbaceous perennials are the plants we tend to divide. Shrubs like roses, hydrangea or even lavender and rosemary are multiplied via cuttings and that is a topic for another day. Also, certain plants, while herbaceous perennials, just don't allow division, such as Oriental Poppies. In time, through some trial and error, you'll learn which plants cannot be divided.

Here in NYC, I like to divide in mid-March to early April and then again in late October to early November. I don't like to stress the plants too much by doing it on sunny, warm days. Choose days that are cool and cloudy with rain on the way or do it right after a good rain. The rain and lack of sun will help the plants settle in with a minimum of stress. If you're on top of things, technically you can divide any time of year except when the ground is frozen. But why tax the plant when its putting energy into flowering or when it most needs its roots to pull up moisture? Do it early, do it late, but avoid it in summer. A general rule is to divide summer/fall bloomers in early spring and spring/summer bloomers in mid-autumn.

How do we identify if a plant can be divided? We have to look carefully at the plant. A series of questions may help determine its divide-ability:

  • Is the plant an herbaceous perennial?
  • Has the plant been in your garden for over 2 years?
  • Has the perennial gotten quite large in that time?
  • Does it look like it is crowding itself or has it died back in its center?
  • Are their little clusters of leaves and stems growing on the outside of the main clump?
  • Does the plant look overgrown yet seem to be under-performing with less flowering?

If you can answer yes to most of those questions, you can divide the plant.

At this point, take your shovel and slice into the dirt around the plants perimeter, keeping the shovel a few inches from the plant. On your last slice, lever the plant and its soil-bound roots up from its hole. Take the clump in your hands. Shake off some of the soil, remove dead leaves and stems and divide!

Sounds simple, right? It is mostly. Except that there are different kinds of root and stem systems. So each requires a different kind of attention. If you just pulled every perennial you wanted to divide in half and replanted it, you'd probably have some success with that. But its useful to know which have spreading root systems, which are clump forming, and which are rhizomatous.

Plants with spreading roots are common to our gardens, such as Chrysanthemum, Aster, and Yarrow. I find these the easiest to multiply through division. After digging up the plant, you will see stem-like roots shooting in all directions. Some of these roots will have a stem and leaves with fine roots growing from a node. You can separate this new plant from its parent.

Sometimes these spreading roots are what we call stolons. Stolons are near-soil-surface stems that run horizontally. New roots and stems form at the nodes of the stolon. Cut the stolon that has some roots and developing stem and leaves from its parent plant and boom!, new plant. Above ground stolons are sometimes simply called runners. A good example of a plant with runners is strawberry.

Rhizomatous plants, like Iris, are divided with attention to its tuber-like rhizomes. An Iris sends roots out from the underside of the rhizome. As the plant grows, its rhizome gets bigger, branching in a manner that looks like fresh ginger at the grocery store. The Iris has a leafing node, usually at the end of a branch of the rhizome. If you have a rhizome with multiple leaf nodes and roots along the branching rhizome, it can be divided. Break or cut the rhizome up so that each leafing node has some rhizome and some roots. Also, discard any rotted rhizome.

Clumping roots require that you split the plant into parts. Sometimes you will do this simply by pulling it apart( as in the case of sedum or some chrysanthemums), sometimes you have to cut the plant (as in the case of a large hosta or some yarrow) into parts with a knife or sharp pruner after shaking the soil free.

Ultimately you want a division to have enough roots to establish the new plant, and either young leaves or leaf buds. In general, you want to plant these divisions as you would any new potted perennial. Keep it well watered until it appears healthy and growing.

This process will become easier as you pick up on the similarities between different perennials in your garden. Of course, I am available for a hands-on how-to. Just click on the Garden Coaching link at the top right of the page. Good luck Ellen!

Below are some photos of three plants I divided this spring: Aster, Yarrow, and Chrysanthemum.
These methods will work for many plant divisions and the work is in identifying which method you need for the perennial you want to divide. I will add more photos and descriptions as I divide more plants this season.


Fall blooming Asters tend to be clump growers. Some spread by runners or stolons, but this one here does not. I divide it every 3 or 4 years or simply as I need to control its size.

Dig up the aster and remove from its hole or do it in place, digging out the division afterward.

Find the clump's center and try to push your shovel through it. You may need the force of your weight on the shovel for it to cut through. The clumps can be surprisingly dense and tough.

Once through, the hard work is done.

You now have two where you once had one. Plant them as you would any perennial and give em a drink.


The yarrow I have grows like mad. Every year I need to chop it up and give some away. Yarrow has a web of roots under the soil and a somewhat horizontal, woody stem at soil level from which the fleshy parts (leaves and roots) of the plant grows.

Be careful then when digging yarrow up as its possible to break its fleshy parts from the woody parts (although you can often just replant the roots with success). Shake the soil from the roots.

I choose to use my by-pass pruners (Felco no. 2) to cut the main woody stem. You can also use a sharp knife or even break it if you must.

Here is the woody stem cut by the pruners. You can see the roots and leaves growing from it. As long as the leaves above also have roots below, your division should grow easily.

Now I have two. And I could have had more if I wanted to cut the plant into smaller sections of leaves and roots. Plant and water in.


Chrysanthemums don't have the woody central stem of yarrow, but has fleshy, near soil surface stems or stolons that extend out from the "mother" plant. When you dig up a mum, its a good candidate for cutting or simply pulling it apart and replanting as you need. Make sure there are roots to go with your leafy stems.

Chrysanthemums also make little "new" plants on the exterior of the main plant. You can simply pull these out. Toss the ones you don't want, but plant any leaves that have attached roots to create new plants elsewhere in the garden.

In two years these will become full sized perennials.

Finally, Rain

I don't much care for a dry spring. The plants look healthy at first glance, but they are overgrown, shot up too fast from so much sun and warmth. All my bulbs are spent, the iris are ready to bloom. Plants look as if it should be late May. It stresses the divisions and transplants. Flowers come and go much faster, and then the heavy rain bends their stems that are weak from lack of moisture. So thank you for the good dose of rain.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Give Away Gone Great

The plant give-away is over and it went really well. I met around 15 nice people from the neighborhood. I gave away maybe 95% of what I had to give so thats excellent too. One person came early and I sent her away with maybe less than she could've used. Then a mad rush came at 9 am. The Flatbush Gardener came by and got some Monkshood and fern. It was all over by 10 am. I started to clean up, but then at 10:30 am someone from the community garden over on 6th Ave and 16th Street came by to pick up a couple of plants. Then another gardener came by and I gave her three ferns. Happy for that as I had so many. About to wrap it up and then I met Erica (Erika?) and Shannon, neighbors from a few blocks away on E5th and I gave them almost everything I had left (which wasn't much by this time). I was late for work, but satisfied that it went really well.

I was quite hoping it would rain later today but now its sunny and then more fair weather tomorrow. Its a bit late for transplants, so water all those plants in! And thanks for saving those plants.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Plant Give Away Tomorrow or Growing the Collective Green

I put up some flyers, but not too many. I announced it to some neighbors and on the blog, of course. Yet I have no idea if 100 people will come to collect 25 plants or 1 person will come by to collect 1 plant. I hope just a few because I only have so much to give away and I fear the first person to roll up will ask for it all and then I won't have the opportunity to chat with so many gardeners. With that in mind, I'll do my best to limit each person to a few.

Check into the Flatbush Gardener's recent post regarding the legality of dividing and giving away perennials. Any patented plants cannot be divided and sold, traded, or even moved around your garden. Personally, I won't go for it. Plants grow, they spread, they create new versions of themselves. These plants have a "right" to go on and I would rather see them go on in the garden of another person than be thrown in the trash simply to protect the financial arrangement between the original breeder and the U.S. government.

I think all my varieties are over 20 years old anyhow and are now in the public domain. But still, the idea of patenting LIFE is still disturbing. Makes me think of Blade Runner. My wife's maternal grandfather bred the original double mockorange in Minnesota. He was a nuseryman. For his sake, I can appreciate the value of plant patents. But as a gardener, I say we keep on gardening which includes dividing, saving seeds, and layering the plants we have.

In some sense, when we buy a plant, I feel we bought the license to that particular plant's total capability -its flowers, its leaves, its roots, and its drive to reproduce. If I plunk down $16.99 for a perennial, a yarrow for example that just gets bigger and clumpier every year, then don't I have the right to maintain the health of that plant and therefore to divide as part of that license? Its the same plant, only bigger and spread out all over the place.

Illegal? Only if that yarrow is patent-pending or patented. So I'll avoid purchasing newly breds. After all, I can wait -there's plenty of incredible plants out there. Like the double mockorange.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Its been dry for about a week now with another dry week to go. After some heavy rain and then steady sun and warm temperatures the plants are taking off. A little faster than I would like, too. I'm still transplanting from the side garden to the front. The side garden stays damp much longer than the full-day-sun front garden. I had to water in well today. I don't like the prospect of so much early season dryness. Makes me worry we'll have little rain later on and the garden will suffer. Most of my plants can handle a moderate drought, but the new transplants will have a harder time of it. I also am pushing some plants to their limits, in this case a fern which is going from half day of sun to 3/4 day of sun and much dryer location. I'm crossing my fingers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Garden Plant Giveaway

I'm definitely having a perennial giveaway in two weeks. Saturday, April 26th 9 am- 11 am.
Here's what I have to give away:

Chrysanthemum "Sheffield Pink"
Geranium spp
Siberian Iris
Monkshood -Aconitum carmichaelii
Lysimachia nummularia aurea -Golden Creeping Jenny
Heuchera -coral bells
Eupatorium coelestinum -hardy Ageratum
Maximillian Sunflower
Oenothera -evening primrose
Siberian Bugloss or False Forget-Me-Not or Heartleaf Brunnera
Wild Ginger
and others

I have a little of everything and each are small plants. They should all grow into healthy plants in a year's time. Most will be put in some kind of container for easy take away. See you at the corner of East 8th and Friel Place in Brooklyn in NYC.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

All in a Day's Work

I started moving plants from the side yard this morning. I moved Phlox, Heuchera, Japanese Iris, Monkshood, Poppy,and Geranium "Johnson's Blue." This was in addition to the yarrow that had been divided last fall, the new Chrysanthemum "Sheffield Pink" (by the way a spreader!) and the asiatic lillies we got from Minnesota last summer. Either way we are jamb-packed in the front garden.

I am wondering how well the Monkshood will do in the sunny front garden (awfully hot). Also I am contemplating where to put the fern that has to be moved from near the house in the side garden. I am thinking of moving it to the front garden, in between the perennial ageratum and the seaside solidago (the least afternoon sun). Did I mention jamb-packed?

Its just that this threat of re-siding the building is having me gather the defenses all in one area. I feel like it will be easier to protect the plants. I will save some plants in the side garden by leaving them just where they are -mostly out of the way of where work is to be done I hope.

We decided to build boxes and will grow vegetables that we can move when the workers come. In the next two weeks I plan to have a sidewalk perennial giveaway. I am making an attempt to borrow old perennial pots from J&L Landscaping around the corner. I'll put up some signs locally and see if I get any bites. Free plants anyone?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Squirrels Beware

I met the artists Franzy and Hajoe in 2001 at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens where we were building projects. I was re-introduced to them this past summer at an artist residency in New Hampshire and we struck up some gardening conversation. Turns out they had a rather bare patch of soil in Sunnyside, Queens and I had overgrowing perennials in deep need of division. So last autumn I divided and gave all they would take away. But Franzy expressed her concern about the squirrels.

They are the deer and woodchucks of the city. They eat tomatoes on the vine, rose buds just before bloom, zuchini gets chomped, they dig up bulbs, and what else-these omnivores!

Well, I made Franzy a red cedar admonishment that only the most brazen of squirrels will not heed. Read it and weep, squirrels.

Central Park Incidental

After making an attempt to see Color Chart at the MoMA (closed Tuesdays? I didn't even look!), I found myself with two hours to kill before work. What a nice day, how 'bout a trip to Central Park. Walking near the literary walk - I see these stunning azalea bushes.

On my way to work, I crossed the Sheep Meadow -where they used to keep grazing sheep until the 1930's. They were housed in the Tavern on the Green before it was called a tavern. Anyhow, I pass this lump of grass that was ripped from the sod. I stopped, tucked it back into its soily hole and went on my way. Then I see this person, metal detecting and digging with a trowel. I watched her/him for 5 minutes or so, same spot, metal detecting on his/her knees and troweling the sod up like nobody's business.

Damage is as Damage Does

Last autumn my landlord felt compelled to cover the outside of a window that was already covered by sheetrock on the inside. Apparently my building has several of these sheetrock covered windows. So without warning, workers went in to cover the window, maybe inspired by a recent Buildings Dept. visit, I don't know. They went into the side garden one day, then another, still unfinished. Then went in again. Maybe four different days they went into the garden to "fix" this window. Each day littering the garden with more debris and grinding more plants into the ground. Really, this is a 1 hour job at most.

Very upsetting. And there was little I could do. I tried to dig up what I could and move it out of the way. Here's a photo of what remains of the side garden this spring. You can see they wore down a path.

And this is the best part: after all that "work" they actually put the siding over the window backwards so that the shingles do not shed water but invite it into the building.

I have anxiety about fixing this garden because now the landlord is contemplating having the building vinyl sided by some of the same guys. I can only imagine the destruction this will do to both the front and side gardens. We are thinking of putting portable planters in the spot so they can be moved when the workers arrive. That means we'll need to find new homes for some of our plants. Maybe there will be some neighborhood takers.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

This Garlic Was Made for You and Me

Have you noticed that our garlic has been grown in China. You will find it at the grocery store, or the corner market, or at the pizza place in boxes labeled "peeled garlic." I guess I have been eating it for awhile. My complaint is that it seems ridiculous to get garlic from China, and by that I mean everyone's garlic -not just a few restaurants that want a special garlic that can only be grown in China, sort of the Prosciutto diParma of China kind of thing. If it ain't coming from China, I guess its coming out of California. Do you remember Gilroy garlic? Gilroy is in California, and thats still pretty far from here. Isn't it one thing to get apples from Argentina in April, but another to get garlic from northern China in late spring? I mean, its not a seasonal issue, just a cost concern. How did this happen? Remember the garlic saves you from a heart attack phase of American Life? I think too much garlic went into making pills and then we started needing huge quantities of tasteless garlic for those pill-popping types trying to stave off that next heart attack. This turned on the global garlic market, maybe. Or was it that Chinese garlic growers were just waiting for a place to ship all that extra garlic they were growing. I don't know if I should care about where my garlic comes from. Or should I grow it myself in pots on the sidewalk, CSA the damn bulb, and what about all that garlic going into the food we eat out or that is processed?! Michael Pollan, TAKE ME AWAY!

Kvetching Compostable?

I now know the drawback to not having a compost repository here in Brooklyn or Queens. Last autumn, we lost our Spring Creek Compost Facility to ???. So now our free compost is less free. We have to drive over the Verrazano Bridge to the tune of what, 8, 9 or 10 dollars -what is it these days? Yeah, I know, the FDR shoot me up to the Willis Avenue Bridge, gets me to the Bronx facility for nothing. But I missed the Bronx weekend for a variety of reasons like I don't have a car and I gotta borrow one. They gotta get the Brooklyn/Queens Facility back on line. Gotta.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Been There

Artists Mai Yamashita & Naoto Kobayashi

A friend knowingly sent me this video from youtube. They've exhibited all over Europe.

I completely understood because, you know, I've been there. In summer 2000.

Just beginning  

After two weeks, 2 hours a day

After 21 days, 2 hours a day

My project was about something completely different, and I must say, a bit more complex. But my hat is off to the two artists.  I can't really say much about their cheeky video. My work, shown here was about connection, both to the land I found myself in and the artist, Janine Antoni,  who had walked here before me. It was an ascetic reaction to a self indulgent atmosphere. It was about evidence, about tracing the paths of others, about redrawing discarded elements, about stating emphatically what is important to me. It was about path-making, making one's mark, but also understanding it shall  eventually be displaced. This work was made in the last few weeks of the Skowhegan class of 2000.  

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Toolish Pride

I love my garden tools. In NYC, I don't need too many because the garden is small and so is the apartment. Keeping it simple keeps me from having to store underused tools. I have 5 tools, a spool of twine, and some gloves. Three of these tools I use regularly, the rake seasonally, and lopper hardly ever (but I couldn't get rid of it just in case). My tools:

Spear & Jackson long-handled trowel
Spear & Jackson spade

By-pass pruner is a Felco #2
Mini-rake - Ames brand

Lopper -mystery, the logo has worn off

One of my favorite tool sources is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply -thats where I got my spade. Another good source is Lee Valley Tools. Its hard to get good gardening tools locally. Most hardware stores carry Ames or Tru-temper brand tools. I've had those, but used them up. But the Ames mini rake my wife found at Lowes. We needed something small for our small garden and this fit the bill.

Friday, April 4, 2008

To Prune or Not to Prune

I prune. Its as meditative as weeding, but more of an art. For those not interested or just prone to the wild, your roses don't need pruning. Its about us after all and they would be just fine without us (yet with more dead canes). I have three types of roses in my garden. A climber, a hedge rose, and something else I yanked out of my grandma's garden just before she sold her house. I prune them all, but each has its own program.

The climber:

I want the climber, Rosa New Dawn, to stay less than 8 feet tall, stay anchored to a trellis, and bloom as much as possible. In late March I cut out canes that interfere with this plan. I gently bend the larger canes, getting them as close to horizontal as possible without stressing it. Then I tie the cane to the trellis. I prune out perpendicular (to the trellis) canes that extend too far out because they may poke me in the eye or something. I also prune canes that are poking the wall behind the trellis. The result is a loosely espalier-like rose bush. Those horizontal canes will deliver vertical flowering branches. The more horizontal (really, diagonal) canes the climber has, the more flowers it tends to produce.

The hedge rose:

These things are meant to be rose-flowering fences. You could probably shear Rosa Knockout and do it no harm. I like to selectively prune my hedge rose for shape (I have only one). I prune out dead twigs and thin branches where I think the shrub is too dense. I also trim the sides of the shrub because I do not want it to encroach on neighboring perennials.

The ? rose (probably old garden rose, tea perhaps?):

This is one with wonderfully scented, double flowers appearing in June and again as the flowering stems are pruned. This bush has one strong cane, about 5/8-inch thick and a few smaller canes and twigs shooting off it. I prune the spindly twigs out and then cut the remaining canes down to roughly pencil thickness near outward facing leaf buds (bud eyes). Once 4 feet tall, its now less than 3 feet. This one blooms after each pruning of flowering stems during the growing season.

Rose pruning tips:

  • I like to prune in late March, just as the temps are warming above freezing at night. Its a good time to do it because there are no leaves to block your view of the canes and the new leaf buds (bud eyes) are becoming swollen and visible.
  • Prune out dead wood. If you suspect disease, clean your pruners with bleach before moving onto other rose bushes.
  • Prune out last year's rose hips.
  • Use a by-pass pruner. I use a Felco #2 and have had it for 15 years. The blade is removable and sharpenable. Keep it sharp for the cleanest cuts.
  • Make your cut in one pass. If it takes more, your pruner's blade is too dull or the cane is too thick and woody. If its too thick, use a large by-pass pruner called a lopper.
  • I cut the cane about 1/4 inch above the desired leaf bud, slicing parallel to the direction of the leaf bud (bud eye). See diagram below.
  • My grandmother swears by sprinkling Epsom Salts around the roses in Spring. Its also known as Magnesium Sulfate. I don't treat my roses to these bath salts, but hey-she's been gardening for 70 years.
  • Wear leather gloves if you don't like thorns pricking your hands.

Grandma's rose cane

Climber New Dawn cane

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dumbarton Oaks

I had long heard of Beatrix Farrand and Dumbarton Oaks, but never seen the work in person. Until three weeks ago. Dumbarton Oaks is a residence, turned research institution, garden, and park in Washington DC. The Dumbarton Oaks site is steeply sloped and Farrand, the landscape architect, sculpted the land at the rear of the house into a series of terraced, walled rooms. Each room is very specific and I marveled at the details. Farrand worked this land between the 1920's and 1940's, a time I might describe as a zone between early century neo-classicism and mid-century modernism. Each room is like an outsized NYC backyard in their rectilinear, walled fashion. As you step away from the rear of the house, the design opens up to the natural contours of the landscape, and then eventually into a woodsy ravine.

The orangerie

The mossy steps

My favorite part, Farrand's amphitheater converted
by landscape architect Ruth Havey into a reflecting
pool. Notice the curving allee of trees sweeping down
the hillside. A real folly.

Beech roots, grass, and spring bulbs

Terracotta wall detail and WinterJasmine

Pruned Wisteria on many walls

The rose garden, one of the larger rooms

The details in a brick staircase

The forced perspective lawn (to make it look longer than it is)

What you can hardly see are the steps in the lawn as this space is terraced

Strange gutter around an empty walled garden
which I presumed was for growing vegetables.
I think the gutter was to catch runoff from the
hillside so that the planting field would not
become too soggy at seeding time.

New York City Garden Center and Plant Nursery Map

This map of nurseries is not an endorsement of any particular business, but a resource for anyone looking for a nursery in the NYC area. Undoubtedly, I missed a few that are out there. Use the comment option if you have a favorite I missed. I chose to not include any florists or hardware stores that also sell bedding plants. There are many more of those in NYC.

I included some nurseries that are in NJ, Yonkers, and Long Island despite their outlying status. Those are marked with the empty marker.

Some regions are woefully without local nurseries, although many of these areas are probably served by hardware stores, florists, and some big box stores. Specifically Queens, which has more planting space than any borough, but also is in closer proximity to all the suburban nurseries.

Zoom in, click on green icons for more information.

View NYC Garden Nurseries in a larger map