Garden Perennials

Planting Perennials – Is Bigger Better?

Last year there was a section of my border/garden that was totally neglected.  This year it got first billing — well almost anyway— and in January we reduced its size and altered its shape. I lifted many plants (dutch iris, daylilies, aster, phlox) and laid them beside the border until I could get to them.  Then the cold and snow came in February.

Here it is April already and only yesterday (March 31, 2010) did I finally get to the huge plants that had been lifted and left bare on the ground.

Having these huge plants before me made me think back to some of the folks I have sold perennials to over the years.  They would have loved to have had a huge 10 to 20 lb clump of a plant to plop right into their garden or border. Over the years I have found this way is not necessarily the best way.

Plants like dutch iris, aster, coreopsis, grasses etc.  have entwined masses of root that when dug come out looking pretty compact and short rooted.  If you plant those large masses (and I have) they take a long time to take hold of the soil again — if they ever do—and can easily become victims of drought or any adverse situation in the garden or border.

I know it can be hard to resist the temptation to plant big clumps, but most plants do much better in every regard  if they are started small.  They take hold of the soil much more quickly and will survive any adverse conditions much more readily. Sedums, coreopsis, phlox, grasses, dutch iris, lambs ear, and many others that come out of the soil in large tightly bound clumps are best broken into small pieces before replanting. Large clumps of daylilies and bearded iris are best broken into fans of 3.

Keep in mind some varieties within a genus can have different root or tuber sizes.  For example beared iris have bigger rhizones than say dutch iris but that does not make one better than the other — just different.  On sight only, the novice might go for a larger rhizone of beared iris when actually the dutch iris might be the better plant for their purpose.  Size in this case has nothing to do with robustness, but rather is the characteristic of the plant.

Same is true with daylilies.  Some plants are extremely large and robust, others are medium, others are very small. It depends on the variety.

In the middle of bloom time many years ago I had a couple come by who had just purchased a place in our area but lived in another state.  A gigantic dayliliy clump that was 36″ tall and in full bloom was their choice. When I dug the lily the root ball was at least 16 inches across.  They were not the least bit interested in breaking it down into individual plants before transplanting. (It would have made at least 50 plants.)   About a month later they called to tell me it had never missed a bloom and they had so enjoyed it.

I must admit daylilies are about the most cooperative of plants. You can do just about anything you want.  When we moved to this home about 12 years ago I just did not have time to plant all that had been moved from my previous garden. That fall I threw them in the path around the garden and chopped them roughly and left them with the root ball up. I thought they would dry out and I could use them for organic matter. Do you know those things bloomed the next season!  Some are still growing today – 12 years later – right where I threw them many years ago!

Again – inspite of the strong will to live that seems built into plants – if you want your plants to have the ultimate growth,  the ultimate bloom and ultimate endurance – you need to start with 1 or 3 roots.  Time goes by very quickly and they will be bigger than you can imagine before you know it.

Picture below: Every year I separate some of these primrose to get them started in another spot.  I plant a single root and they come up the next year looking lush and great.  By the third season I have another thick clump.


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  • Thanks for this encouraging post.

    I was going back through your archives & this really encouraged me greatly.

    Last spring I spent quite a bit of money buying perennials & planting them only to have them eaten by voles.

    This spring I will seperate the perennials I have and spread them through the areas that I want flowers.

    I already know the voles won’t bother them. This will save me lots of money, time & frustration.

    Thanks for reminding me that the solution is already in my garden:-)


  • Glad you were able to find this post in the archives Betty. It has some good information in it that seems to escape a lot of folks.

    Bigger is better might be the “in” thing, but the bottom line is: to get the very best results plant small.

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