Growing Concerns 533: Dividing grass, yuccas

Early Fall!

Dividing ornamental grass is not for the timid or gentle gardener

Dear Janet,

How about some tips on dividing grasses? I have a grass that's grown quite large. I tried to divide it with a shovel, separating it from the ground. It did not work very well and the grass is very tough.


Dear K.,

Ornamental grass, hosta, Siberian iris, goatsbeard, daylily and other perennials that can form very large, crowded clumps are not the province of gentle or timid gardeners. Put enough weight on a sharp spade -- the digging implement with a rectangular blade, as opposed to a shovel which has a pointed tip -- and you may be able to slice into the crown to make radial cuts as if slicing a piece of pie. That v-shaped section might come loose if you then pry with a spade under its outside edge -- the rim of the pie.

Then again, you may not even penetrate the crown. The bigger grasses such as silver grass (Miscanthus species) will defy all but a razor edge spade driven by a champion weight lifter wearing steel shank boots. I once saw a grown man throw down his tools, cuss and accept defeat even though it meant he'd have to tell diminutive old Aunt Edna that he couldn't, after all, "fetch a piece of that hosta over there."

The trick is to dig the entire clump out of the ground. Trench all the way around it then angle down under it to break it loose. Although this involves cutting through dense roots, it's less tough than cutting the crown. Once there is wiggle room all around and under the clump, go borrow a gardening friend's fork so you have two, yours and theirs.

You don't have a fork? A sturdy fork, that tool that may look like a pitchfork but has tines much broader and less curved? It's invaluable in the perennial garden! Invest in one. Smith and Hawken makes the best one around -- put it on your Christmas list.

Place the tines of the fork on the clump as if it was a spade about to make that radial cut. Push the tines down in and through the clump. This may involve jumping on the fork so wear boots or hard soled shoes. It may be tough, yet easier than inserting a spade blade since your weight will bear down on four small points. That's more pounds per square inch, more piercing power!

Now put your friend's fork in along the same radius, but with the back of its tines against the back of your fork's tines. Push it all the way in.

Grasp the handles of both forks and push them apart. The four tines on each fork will scissor across each other to shred the clump like the formidable steel talons they are. Your force on the handles will be amplified just like our high school physics teachers told us it would, as they described the wonders of levers.

Repeat the process to make many small pieces, or replant just the first division and compost the rest. Send it to a municipal compost site where they can handle it with heavy equipment and hundred horsepower shredders! You need just one quarter or less of the original behemoth to set back into the garden. Be sure to mix in a volume of compost equal to the root mass you threw out.

In the future, knowing which perennials are toughest to divide, don't let them go so long undisturbed. Silver grass can remain in place for ten years or more but I only let that happen if I think I won't be in charge of dividing it when the time comes. I know the pain of spending half a day digging one eight year old clump of zebra grass (Miscanthus zebrinus) out of the ground to divide it. I'd rather expend less effort more often, so I divide that lunker every three or four years.

Short reports

The yuccas keep coming back...

...says D.F.C. Yes they  do that, for many years unless you dig deep to remove the majority of the woody tap root. Even then, you'll have to snap off resurgent sprouts for a year or two.

What's rolling up the new sod every night?

...asks B.L.  Raccoons, probably, looking to see if anything's edible beneath. Grub killer's not the answer. A raccoon will lift anything that's loose, just in hope of food, especially if it's old hunting ground woods is now lawn. Use a fork to aerate the soil before you relay the loose sod, so it can root more quickly. 


Green thumbs up

to Master Gardener coordinator, Oakland County, Martha Ferguson. May you transplant well and grow even more wonderful in the hills of West Virginia. We'll miss you!


Green thumbs down

to those people who nag us about using a pick-up truck as it was meant to be used. Scratches are a truck's badge of honor, and our garden's worth it!


Originally published 9/13/03