The old adage, "Out with the old and in with the new," is applicable to so many aspects of life. It even applies to spring gardening. Although Mother Nature effortlessly brings forth new growth each year, there are a few simple tips to get the most beauty out of your perennial flower garden.
The first item on every gardener's to-do list, according to Joan Buckles of Pleasant Nursery, 4234 W. Wabash Ave., is to clear away all dead foliage from the garden in order to expose new growth to the sun. This applies to herbaceous perennials common to central Illinois such as coneflower, hosta, peony, bearded iris, daylily and black-eyed Susan, to name a few. These plants have delicate stems that die back to the ground at the end of the season, leaving the roots to survive the winter. New growth comes forth from the ground each spring. Candi Scheuermann, garden center manager at Green View, 3000 W. Jefferson St., said once you wake up the garden by clearing away debris, add the trimmings to the compost pile.
Next, prune perennials that have a wood-like stalk, such as roses, clematis and hibiscus. Buckles explained that perennials such as hydrangea and butterfly bush can be pruned after new growth is detected on the branch. However, if the winter has been harsh, these perennials may die back to the ground; don't assume the plant is dead until you look for new growth at ground level. She also suggested pruning clematis back to 1 foot above ground.
This is also the time for dividing and transplanting perennials if your garden is mature and the flowers are spreading and filling their space. Perennials will show some of the following signs when they need divided: reduced flowering or smaller flowers, a hole in the center of the plant with growth only around the edges, the plant flops and needs staking, it loses its vigor or it has outgrown its bounds.
Scheuermann said although plants are a month earlier in their growth pattern due to warmer than usual weather, it is still the right time to divide and transplant. She advises transplanting before a plant has leafed out, so the sooner the better. However, Buckles warned against dividing irises and peonies in the spring and suggested dividing those at the end of August instead.
Overall, dividing perennials is an easy task that requires a shovel, a sharp knife and a new spot for transplanting. Simply dig up the entire plant's root ball, use the knife to divide it and put those divisions into their new location. This is also the perfect opportunity to share the beauty of your garden with a friend by putting the new starts into plant liners to give as a gift.When digging the new hole, make it larger than the root ball being transplanted.
Scheuermann recommends mixing one part compost to two parts soil for the backfill. She said the compost should be just enough to loosen the soil and create a happy place for the roots to grow. However, "Don't make the new hole too friendly because the roots will stay there," she noted. The objective is to get the roots to establish the plant by working to branch out in search of water and nutrients. Scheuermann joked, "It's like if you make the basement too comfy, the kids may not want to move out."
Lastly, once the garden's spring cleaning checklist is completed, Buckles suggests spreading 1"-2" of hardwood mulch over your perennial garden to keep the moisture in and the weeds out. She said mulch is preferred over rock, since rock retains heat and makes the garden too hot for perennials. Keep mulch light around irises, no more than 1", due to the fact that their root system runs on top of the ground and heavy mulch will rot the roots.
If you are short on time but still want the beauty of a flower garden, perennials are the way to go. They require minimal upkeep and provide a great return on investment by displaying more and more beautiful color each growing season.
As a result of families being home more last year due to COVID-19 and the fact that garden centers were considered essential businesses, Scheuerman said business was brisk.
"So many people have found comfort and peace in gardening and being in nature. A lot of young people got excited about vegetable gardening and growing house plants. People felt safe outdoors and walking around a garden center," she said. "My entire staff witnessed the positive takeaway that it was good to see people happy and doing things with family. Putting your hands in the dirt is very grounding."
Holly Whisler is a freelance writer from Springfield who enjoys gardening and is in the process of dividing perennials to share with friends.