Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Divide Hostas

I have to admit that I really, really love hostas and they are one of my favorite plants.  Here in New England, they do well in both shade and sun, are easy to grow, and can be regularly divided into new plants.  They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well.  Over the past ten years or so, I have only bought a couple pots of hostas, dug up one wayward clump at a demolition site, and snagged a few "eyes" off family members' plants, but have propagated at least two hundred plants from those. Hostas are a great plant to divide into new plants as they grow larger.

Since my farm is from the 1700's, one of my long-term goals is to focus on plantings that would have been grown at that time.  Hostas are native to China, Japan, and Korea and were first introduced to European gardeners by spice traders and explorers who traveled to Asia during the 1700's and brought the plants back on their ships.  By the early 1800's, hostas made their way to American gardens and could be ordered from catalogs by the mid-1800's.  So while hostas were not native to America, they certainly were grown and loved by early American gardeners.

Last spring, I brought many hosta divisions from our previous home to our farm.  I planted them along a shady part of the driveway and around the bases of some of our huge maples that line the road.  I'm excited to see them starting to emerge in their second year!  This week, I just divided a large plant into about 30 divisions.  I'm trying to make the yard on the farm more low-maintenance.  By planting hostas around the maples and in shady areas of the lawn, it will cut down on mowing, weeding, and weed-whacking (all of which I really dislike).  There is the initial time investment of planting and establishing the new beds, plus spreading manure and mulch in the spring, but I'm confident it will cut down on the general amount of yard work.

My Hosta Collection

The first hostas I bought were part of a "shade garden collection" I bought for my mom one Mother's Day.  We planted "August Moon" and a few other varieties on a shady slope by her porch that was both too steep and too boggy to keep as lawn.  After a few years, those couple of wimpy little plants became strong and stunning, spreading at least four feet wide and turning a bare dirt slope into a beautiful and easy-to-maintain garden.  I was eventually able to split off a few eyes from the edges of the plants, which didn't even look as though they had been touched, for my own gardens.

The potted plants came from the Christmas Tree Shop.  (If you're not lucky enough to live near a Christmas Tree Shop, you are really missing out!  They have all the stuff you never knew you absolutely needed.)  I fell in love with a few lovely types called "Broad Band", a large plant with dark green leaves with lime green borders, and "Faith", a yellow-green variety with a crinkled leaf texture.  I split the potted plants into as many smaller plants as I could and planted them under the maples and grape arbor in my yard.

One of my best finds (and free, so even better) was a huge hosta clump next to a mid-1800s cottage that was slated for demolition.  The cottage was across the road from our previous house in a neighborhood of Victorian-era homes.  It made me sad that the little antique cottage was being torn down, but even after opposition during a public meeting about it, the owner could not be persuaded to save it.  The night before it was torn down, my husband and I went over under the cover of darkness, shovels and garbage bags in tow. It took both of use to remove the giant plant, which was probably as old as the cottage.  Over the next few days, I carefully split the plant, prepared a long bed with plenty of compost and horse manure, and replanted it.  Although it may have never been a named variety because of its age, it's a bushy plant with long, thin
leaves that resembles "Surfer Girl".

Spring is the time to divide!
Spring and fall are the ideal times to divide hostas.  In spring, the best time is when the eyes (leaf tips) start to poke out of the ground, but before the leaves unfurl.  The plants will be growing rapidly, the weather is cooler, and they can recover from a division and transplant easier.  A few times, I've had to divide plants during the summer and I can definitely say that spring divisions require less watering and care and they grow quicker.

Steps for successful hosta divisions...

1. Start by choosing and preparing the planting sites.  Hostas are a wonderful shade plant, but most varieties can also do well in the sun as long as it's not extremely hot and dry.  (A hot, dry location can lead to leaf burn.)  Hostas love moist, rich soil and are heavy feeders, meaning they use up a lot of nutrients in the soil.  To improve the soil...
- turn over the planting site to loosen soil
- dig in lots of compost and aged manure, which will help retain moisture, improve the soil texture, and add the natural fertilizers that hostas love.  (I have added fresh horse and cow manure to planting sites without problems, but high-nitrogen manure, like chicken manure, is so strong when fresh that it can kill plants.  Age chicken manure at least one year before using.)
- If you're planting around a tree, you can avoid damaging the roots by adding a thick layer of compost and manure so you don't need to dig as deep.

2. Either dig up the whole hosta plant to be split, or use a spade to slice off a few eyes from the edge.  If you're slicing off eyes, try not to damage the eyes or separate any eyes from their roots.  You can do this by trying to get the spade between eyes and pushing it straight down into the plant, then dig underneath from the side to free the transplants.

3.  Use a garden hose to spray off extra soil from the roots.  It's a lot easier to separate tangled roots if they are washed off first.  

4.  To divide the plants, I like to either work right on the ground or have the clumps in a wheelbarrow.  Keep a few buckets or trays next to you to put the split plants into.  Separate as many plants by hand as possible.  Plants near the edge of the clump can often be wiggled away, preserving their roots.  You may need to continue to wash off the roots as you divide up the clump.

5.  Use a long, serrated kitchen knife (not your best knife, but one you can donate to gardening projects) to carefully cut through the clump.  Make sure each eye retains some good roots.  You can divide up plants into big or small clumps with several eyes each or just one eye.  Large clumps will look fuller sooner, but with single eyes you can get more plants.  
If you have a clump so large that you have trouble using the knife, you can also split it into manageable sections with a shovel.  A shovel, however, is less accurate and can damage some of the eyes, so be careful.

6.  Plant right away and water well.  Mulching will reduce moisture loss and will prevent weeds.  I like to use the aged bedding from my animal stalls; it contains manure which will slowly leach nutrients into the soil while smothering out the weeds and retaining moisture.  (Just avoid using fresh, high-nitrogen manure as it can burn plants.)

7.  Water the transplants deeply every few days, if there is no rain, or if they look wilted.  If you divide and transplant when the eyes are just emerging, they won't need as much water and will recover quickly.

Hostas aside...
As I was planting my new hosta divisions under this maple, I kept hearing a funny chirping noise coming from a hole about ten feet up the tree.  I guessed it was raccoon babies, and I was right!  Tonight, at dusk, I caught mom raccoon lounging out the hole, watching me.  

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