Dividing Perennials: Only When Needed

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Many gardening books and Web sites insist on the importance of dividing perennials according to a specific schedule. For each variety described, they inevitably recommend dividing it every three years, four years or five years. There never seem to be any exceptions to the rule. 

I’ve always wondered about the reason for this obsession with division. After all, in the wild, nobody divides these plants and they manage to thrive anyway. Why then should I have to divide them just when they’re starting to look their best? (Because it takes about three or four years for most perennials to really reach their peak appearance.)

Personally, I don’t divide my perennials according to somebody else’s schedule: I only divide on an “as needed” basis. If a perennial has expanded so much that it encroaches on its neighbors, I divide it. If it starts to bloom less because it has become too dense over time, I divide it. If it dies out in the middle leaving a ring of growth around a dead center, I divide it. If I need more plant material to start a new flower bed, I divide it. But if it is beautiful, productive, floriferous and not interfering with its neighbors, I just let it do its thing. As a result, I’ve never divided most of my perennials: they simply don’t need it.

Some Do, Some Don’t

I find it very hard to generalize about dividing perennials, even among related plants. For example, some astilbes and daylilies start to decline after four or five years and bloom less abundantly. I’ll divide these … or replace them with something more durable. But I have other astilbes and daylilies that are still beautiful 20 years after I planted them, so I just let them be.

This Hosta ‘June’ is almost 25 years old, has never been divided and is more and more beautiful every year. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Dividing according to need makes even more sense with slow-growing perennials. When a book or Web site recommends I divide my hostas and peonies every five years (I’m not exaggerating: you really do find that kind of advice!), I can scarcely believe it. After all, these plants grow with all the speed of an anemic snail: it takes at least ten years before the plants look their best … and even after ten years, the less often you divide them, the more beautiful they become. There are spectacular hostas and peonies that have not been divided in 50 years or even longer: they are much more beautiful than the scrawny specimens divided every five years.

I suspect that the authors who encourage unneeded plant maintenance have a bit of a puritanical element to their nature: sort of an “only through hard work can you reach heaven” attitude … and dividing perennials can be very hard work (as you know if you’ve ever tried dividing some of those big perennial grasses)! Well, I get to enjoy my piece of heaven right here on earth thanks to my flower beds and they have very little need of my attention!

The Exceptions

Gaillardia or blanket (Gaillardiagrandiflora): this short-lived perennial practically blooms itself to death. Divide or take cuttings every 2 years to keep it going. Photo: sunlightgardens.com

Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule. Thus there are some short-lived perennials, such as gaillardia, perennial flax, and certain coreopsis that really should be divided frequently, in fact, every two or three years; otherwise they tend to disappear for no apparent reason. But rather than chopping the plant into pieces and thus reducing its bloom for the summer, I find it much easier to take stem cuttings. Just cut a stem, remove any flowers or flower buds and root it in moist soil. It couldn’t be easier … and it doesn’t stress the mother plant which will then continue to bloom.

Columbines are charming but short-lived perennials that don’t like to be divided, so just let them self-sow. Photo: http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com

And there are other perennials that are short-lived; yet that hate being divided. Nor do they grow from stem cuttings either (or at least, not very vigorously): lupines, columbines, mauves, etc. These are the easiest short-lived perennials of all: simply let them self-sow … and they do so abundantly!

So here in a nutshell is the laidback gardener’s rule to dividing perennials: only divide perennials when they really need it. ’Nuff said!

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5 thoughts on “Dividing Perennials: Only When Needed

  1. Good advice, now I’m hoping you’ll give me one more piece of advice. We have a small public garden with large swaths of daffodils that have been there about 13 years. They are gorgeous, but we’d like to move some closer to the road so more people could enjoy them. I’ve read two thoughts on the subject for after the foliage turns brown – divide and move, or dig up bulbs, hold them and plant in the fall. Do you have a opinion on which approach is better? Thank you.

  2. Patricia Evans

    Rather than dig up a whole plant to divide, I will often dig out a section , leaving the remainder to expand in place. That way I can share without setting my original plant back, And I’ve never heard of dividing peonies every 5 years. That would be absurd. I even leave the irs until the rhizomes are crawling all over each other.

  3. Bingo! Divide when needed. However, some of the common perennials, like New Zealand flax and African iris, do not get divided enough. I do my bearded iris annually, just because it does not slow them down.

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