Small Changes: Easy Ways to Move and Divide Perennials

The warm days and cool nights of September promote garden changes that may be on your Garden Redesign Task List.  Using weatherproof stakes or markers, mark out what you have on your spring list as a reminder for yourself next year.  To complete the fall tasks now, here are four steps you’ll follow: gather materials, prep the planting area, dig-divide-plant, and water.     

   The first step is gathering your tools and materials. You will need the following:

  • Compost: a bag or two should be sufficient as it goes pretty far, what’s not used can be spread in the garden or saved for next year in a dry place
  • Sharp Spade: the sharper the better to cut through roots and tough soil
  • Pruners: dead roots and flower stalks will need to be clipped off
  • Tarp, bucket, or wheelbarrow: having a vessel with wheels to move plants around is helpful but a bucket or tarp will work
  • Stakes or markers: for use as placeholders for spring plantings

  The next step is to prep the planting area by moistening the soil just so it’s loose enough to dig the holes for the new plants.  (Tip: If you want to water while you run to the nursery, you can leave your hose in the garden with a very low flow of water to seep into the ground – be careful as too much water will swamp out the garden.)  Next, dig your holes about 1 ½ -2 times the size of the new root ball but don’t worry if you can’t get the hole that big because of other plants.  If you mix some of the compost in with the surrounding soil, your plants will grow just fine.

    The following step is to pop the plant to be moved or divided out of the ground, shake a little of the soil off, then backfill with some of the surrounding soil and compost. If you are dividing perennials, take note of the root structure as you clean off any dead and diseased roots.  With a better view of the bare plant, find the natural split of the roots and stalks or the firm crown of the plant.  The interwoven roots should tear apart easily whereas the firm crown will need to be sliced with a sharp saw, knife, or trowel.  Once divided, place the plant into the freshly dug hole keeping the crown even with the existing soil level and cover the roots with compost and some of the existing soil.  Repeat the process minus the dividing for transplants.  If you are unsure of what type of root structure you have please refer to the Clemson University Extension Perennial Division page at for a list of perennials and diagrams of root structures.  

    Lastly, water every newly planted perennial to reduce stress as much as possible.  Make sure to keep them watered regularly with the goal of 1” per week. Remember, that September can be hot and dry with little humidity so your plants can dry out very quickly.  Top dressing with leftover compost can help with water retention.

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