Divide and prune

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a child. I especially love the scene where Mary discovers large green shoots beginning to poke out of the ground: she doesn't know a thing about plants, but she instinctively thinks they won't be able to breathe with all the other plants around, so she clears a space around them. Rob and I are certainly not experts, but we've learned how to trust our instincts while following conventional gardener's wisdom regarding pruning and dividing. Both can help ensure you will have more and bigger blooms.

Our old-fashioned climbing roses are taking over the side of the house. Rob plans to build a trellis for them later this month, which we hope will detract from the old, flaking, peeling shutters - or, alternately, add to their charm.

To prune these guys, wait until the blooms have faded and shriveled and the ground is covered with dry, crunchy petals. Then simply cut off the dead blooms along with the closest pair of leaves. It takes longer than lopping off the stalks to a uniform length, but over the years, we've found it is incredibly effective, encouraging many, many blooms. We'll often even get a second flowering out of them later in the season.

Dividing is one of the easiest things you can do to your plants, and we love it because we feel like we're getting free plants out of the deal! With many plants, you can simply dig out the clump, chop it in half and replant the halves. The timing has to be right, though, so do some research first.

We had some yellow irises along the side of the house which grew to about a foot tall. We liked them so much that we decided to divide them to see if they'd take over more territory. Since they bloomed in the spring, we divided them in the fall.

They don't grow down but rather across, as they're rhizomes (think of the clumps of ginger you see at the grocery store). It was easy to pry a huge clump out of the ground, and I didn't follow the precise instructions of cutting them with a sharp, sterile knife; I just broke them into pieces, each piece with a small bud attached. We replanted the pieces in three places, including their original home, and had 4 or 5 gallon-sized bags of leftovers, which we gave away to friends.

We weren't sure if they'd bloom the next year, but they did. And this year, they have surprised us by growing at least twice as tall. They love the extra breathing room!

The moral of the story is, check with the pros, but trust your instincts. Just like Mary.