Planting Perennials – Is Bigger Better?

Are you convinced that planting perennials as huge clumps will give you the best results? Starting with smaller plants will give you the ultimate growth,  bloom and endurance in times of adversity (such as drought).

Plants are Strong / Most Daylilies are Almost Invincible

Last year a section of my border/garden that was totally neglected.  This year it got first priority 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.  Before that happened, the cold and snow of February came.

Only yesterday (March 31, 2010) did I finally get to the huge plants that had been lifted and left bare on the ground.  (And yes, they were all alive and well.  Laying bare root on the ground where they were placed last January they still showed strong grow.)

Folks Think Huge Plants or Clumps are Better, but They’re Not

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

Plants like Dutch Iris, aster, coreopsis, grasses etc.  have entwined masses of root. When dug up they 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.

Advantages to Starting Small When Planting Perennials

It can be hard to resist the temptation to plant perennials as big clumps.  But most plants do much better in every regard  if started small.

Small plants will take hold of the soil much more quickly and survive any adverse conditions (such as drought) much more readily.

How Small?

Sedums, coreopsis, phlox, grasses, Dutch Iris, lambs ear, and many others come out of the soil in large tightly bound clumps. They are best broken into small pieces before replanting. Large clumps of daylilies and bearded iris are best broken into fans of 3. (One plant is called a fan.)

Keep in mind some varieties within a genus can have different root or tuber sizes.  For example, bearded iris have bigger rhizomes than Dutch Iris. But that doesn’t make one better than the other — just different.

The novice, judging the rhizome by sight, might go for the  larger rhizome of bearded Iris when actually the dutch iris (with a smaller rhizome) might be the better plant for their purpose.  Size of the rhizome in this case has nothing to do with robustness, but rather is the characteristic of the plant.

Same is true with daylilies.  Large and robust roots are characteristic of some while others have medium or small roots. It depends on the variety.

Daylilies – A Perennial That’s Hard to Kill

In the middle of bloom time during a hot summer many years ago, a couple came by to purchase a daylily. They were here for the weekend, enjoying there newly purchased weekend home.

A gigantic daylily 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 without killing them. Nonetheless, I still prefer the way they perform and grow when starting with a fan of 3.

Another Example

When we moved to our current home in 1998,  there was no time for planting perennials that had been moved from my previous garden. That fall I threw excess lilies (of the same variety) in the paths around the garden. Even chopped them roughly and left them with the root ball up, thinking they’d die.  (I planned to use the dead plants for organic matter in my cold compost pile.)

Do you know those things bloomed the next season!  Some are still growing today (2010) – right where I threw them years ago!

So -Why is It Better to Go With a Small Plant?

This perennial primrose was started with just one root.

I plant a single root when I separate a clump of primrose after bloom finishes. They look great even the first year. By the third season I have another thick clump.

If you’re moving things around, moving small plants is not only time saving but much easier than having to move big clumps.

In spite of the strong will to live that’s built into plants – if you want them to have the ultimate growth,  bloom, and endurance – start with 1 to 3 roots.

Planting perennials as small plants allows them to take hold of the soil much more quickly.  And they’ll be better prepared to deal with any adversity that nature throws their way.


All content including pictures is copyrighted by  All rights are reserved.


  • 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.

Leave a Comment