Grow 496: Split a big grass, pot a dwarf Alberta

Early Winter!

Even small gardeners can move large plants and make a big splash in the yard 


Dear Janet,

Like many others I have plants where they don't belong. There are five pampas plants on the side of my new home. They have been there about a year and are already up to the roof. Obviously I need to move them.

I assume the best time to move them would be in spring. How far away from the stalks do I start digging the hole around the roots? Do I attempt to pull it out as one piece (I am a 60 year old weighing in at 104 pounds with no family nearby!)? Or cut the root ball into sections and then drag them out? If I cut them into sections, how far apart should they be planted? Being able to reuse this pampas grass would really help my garden budget, provide some privacy and perhaps reduce the amount of dust generated by passing vehicles.


Dear J.M.,

Dig a trench six inches outside the cluster of stems that is the crown of the plant. Don't worry that you're cutting through roots. Hardy pampas grass (Erianthus ravenna) is a clump former, which means any piece of crown plus roots will grow readily into a new clump, yet crownless bits of root left in the ground can't come back to haunt you.

As you dig the trench deeper, slant its inside edge to undercut the root ball. Once the trench extends far enough under the clump you can cut the root ball off of its "tee." Then move the ball out of the hole and split it, using a sharp spade, two garden forks pushed in back to back, an axe, or a wedge and a mallet. Your clumps aren't old enough to actually require splitting but they can be divided into two, three or more pieces and will quickly regain the size you see now. When I split older grasses I replant sections that are one-quarter or less of the clump.

One person can manage year-old clumps of ornamental grass. Taking an older plant out of the hole is where helpers come in handy because such a root ball may be several feet across, outweigh the gardener and defy efforts to split it into sections until it's on flat ground. Still, this job can be done single handed, even by smaller folk like you and me. (I have thirty pounds on you, but at 5'4" I still can't get my arms around, let alone lift, a 36-inch root ball.)

Sometimes even big gardeners work alone because our view of plants -- as mobile pieces of outdoor furniture -- doesn't win understanding and cooperation from potential helpers. So we all need to learn to use tools wisely. Then, we can do amazing things.

For instance, when it comes to transplanting large plants you can avoid any lifting by tipping the root ball off its tee onto a tarp, wrapping a line around the tarp and dragging it out. Get a power assist by hooking the line to a lawn tractor or a car. Or learn to use gears in a come-along, pulleys in a block and tackle or a lever in the form of a long pry bar set over a cinder block as fulcrum.

You're right about grasses along a road making an effective privacy screen and dust baffle. They block salt spray, too. Since they're too tall where they are, why not bundle each one, then cut them down, and use the bundles to see how they will look along the road? Just lash the bundles, upright, to stakes set in proposed new locations.

When you move the grasses, space them to meet your needs. Ornamental grasses don't usually become taller over years, just wider around. So if you want each to retain its individuality, plant them six feet apart or further. If you want a hedge, leave 18 to 24 inches between clumps so they grow together after a year or two. You know, while I'm only guessing, how much they grow in one year on your site, because you see how wide the grasses are now when you dig them, compared to their purchase size. Leave room for at least one year's growth between the divisions, so they can establish before they begin to compete at the root.



My question is about putting those spiral-cut dwarf Alberta spruces in containers by the front door. How well does this work in the winter?


Dear G.B.,

Many plants used this way do survive the cold, and can be tended through the growing season for another winter's use. Some don't make it -- the most common cause of death being dessication in a container too small to hold enough moisture or so cold that all water in it was frozen and unavailable to roots. Others die because roots in a container are more exposed than in the ground. Roots are much less hardy than stems and trunks, unable to survive a deep freeze.

Perhaps the question really is, "If they die, was the decorative effect worth the expense?" Only you can answer that!


Green thumbs up

to the northern gardener's advantage. When your southern friends tempt you with tales of year round gardening, counter with how wonderful it is to have a few months off each year.


Green thumbs down

to planning to buy new plants -- I know those catalogs are calling you! -- until you first plan to discard some of what you already have. Space is beautiful, so make some happen in your yard.


Originally published 12/28/02