Early October signals the start of true fall. Acrid scents of brightly hued mums, pumpkins and gourds at the doorstep and cool dry breezes make time in the garden a treat—and there is much work to be done. As you survey the garden and make your plan of attack for cleanup and winter prep, you may find you need to divide and contain the spread of exuberant plants too cherished to cast away. Now is the season to check for any favorites that can be passed along to friends or family.
Passing along treasured garden plants to other gardeners is probably a tradition as old as gardening itself. Heirloom plants—plants prevalent in gardens before WWII and earlier—have survived over decades because people thought to shake seed pods and preserve the contents or tenderly lift rooted side shoots or errant seedlings and “gift” loved ones, much like they would the sterling silver flatware or grandmother’s tea set. Unscathed by hybridizers and mass-market producers, heirlooms are bluebloods, remaining true to their progenitors. But regardless of its heritage, any plant that is a standout specimen because of color or prolific blooms is worth sharing.
Peonies come to mind, and fall is the perfect time to lift and divide them. Start with a sizable plant, one that is more than a few years old. When foliage dries, cut it back to within an inch of the crown. Dig up the roots, and wash away the soil. Cut it into pieces that have three to five ‘eyes’ or buds and pass them along. If you are the lucky recipient, plant the peonies where you want them to grow. Place the buds an inch or two below soil as soon as possible, and water them until late November or when frosts are frequent.
Hostas and daylilies that have outgrown their garden spots can be divided in fall as well. The big-leaved hostas or those with unusual variegation especially make great pass-alongs. Lift the plant up with a gardening fork and cut through the fibrous root mass with a pruning saw or butcher’s knife. Divide and treat daylilies in the same manner.
Generally, things that bloom in the spring are best divided in the fall; leave the fall bloomers undisturbed until spring. But for the in-between bloomers, fall’s cooler days and less brutal sun ease the transition; some of the hardier perennials can be transplanted now with great success. Slice through daisies, practically indestructible, with a garden spade and lift them in clumps even as they bloom. Tri-color Viola, ‘Johnny-jump- ups,’ or any viola or violet for that matter also can be lifted and gifted. Members of the Campanula family, from the tall bellflowers to the scrambling ground covers, transplant well now. And rooted pieces of perennial Geranium, blue-flowered Brunnera and Amsonia, and Epimedium can be passed along now. Another general rule: if a plant stays green through the early winter, it’s a good candidate for fall dividing and sharing.
Best not to gift plants that can become invasive. Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and common English ivy, once well rooted, can engulf a garden—oe even a house—and become a nuisance. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), so alluring with its heady spring scent, masquerades as an ideal pass-along, and transplants readily any time of the year. But it eventually can strangle nearby shrubs and small trees. If a plant is aggressive in your garden, don’t pass it on to vex another. Even some of the elegant Clematis self sow and spring up where they are least wanted.
Now is a good time to collect seeds and seedlings for another gardener to sow. Spires of pale foxglove with freckled throats are so welcome in the spring garden. If some of the pods were left to dry, you may find baby plants scattered about the mother and right-sized for fall gathering. They transplant well and will bloom next spring.
Foxglove are biennial, meaning they send out a lush rosette of foliage the first year and bloom the year following. Many biennials self sow readily, among them: rose campion and mullein, sweet William, forget-me-nots and hollyhocks. If you grow herbs such as rue, feverfew or coneflower (Echinacea), search for small offspring under the sheltering foliage.
Check under shrubs such as Ilex (holly), Hydrangea, Forsythia and Salix (members of the willow family) for stems that may have taken root where they touched the soil, a propagation method called layering. Sever a rooted piece from its parent and pot it. If you’re more ambitious, you can take a hardwood cutting of a long-lived shrub such as boxwood, and even some roses can be coaxed into rooting with hormone powder and pampering in a pot indoors over the winter. Lavender, with its soothing perfume, is another good candidate.
American botanist John Bartram introduced more than 200 native North American species to Europe in the 18th century. In 1912, the Japanese Emperor gave more than 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. government. Planted along the Potomac River, their beauty is legendary. Giving something from your garden to a friend or family member can be the start of a tradition carried down through generations, especially if you also share your love of gardening. More than just a gift, pass-along plants are the beginning of a legacy.