Category: How-to

Divide and conquer

Once I have a garden idea in my head, I can’t let go of it. Even if it is a half-ass thought, I need to take action so I’m able to move on with my day. Now if I could only find a way to have that same issue with a money making scheme, I’d be in good shape.

Last fall I found myself consistently analyzing one section of a garden bed, wanting to extend it so it would dramatically impact the views from both the driveway and my back deck. The funny thing is, I had just extended that same section of the garden the year before.


And by autumn of last year, I had filled that newly found empty garden space with a number of plants.

The intelligent planner would have completed the one giant extension at one time, determining then that there was plenty of room for expansion and why not maximize that within one project. But not this guy, he had to break it out into two long and grueling sessions over the course of two years.

And here’s the rub – by extending the same section further, the plants that were used and filled the original extension now would look silly and out of place since what was the front now would become the middle. Everything would have to be relocated to account for proper heights.

So dummy pushed on and started to map out the extended bed by using cardboard to kill the grass and rocks to keep the cardboard in place.

new bed

new bed 2

I then added mulch before winter set in to keep it all in place and to ideally aid in the breakdown of the cardboard at the same time the grass died.

new bed 3

Fast forward to spring and the number one goal this season is to get that open section filled by the start of summer. The pictures don’t really do it justice, it is a huge open spot and it will be a hell of a job to fill it. Not to mention expensive buying the necessary plants.

Or maybe, if John was smart, he could pull it off without paying a dime. Maybe he could divide existing perennials and turn 3 into like 9 or 10. Maybe he could relocate some reseeded perennials that were hidden under large shrubs and in crevices. Maybe he could divide a grass that has been begging to be cleaned up and divided for years now. And maybe, just maybe, he could finally take some of those small shrubs that have been wasting away in the “bullpen” (my term for the embarrassing always under construction bed I never reveal to you all) and put them to good use.

And yes you guessed it, John did do all of that. He’s good.

new bed


Four years ago I planted three Obedient plants (‘Vivid’) and now, thanks to their underground runners, 3 has become close to 50.

What they look like in August:

pink obedient 3

And how the small divisions look today:

divided obedient


I had at least 15 small Yarrow plants popping up all over the garden through reseeding over the years and now they are all reunited in one section of the garden to achieve the greatest visual impact in summer.

reseeded achillea


The aforementioned grass was Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ which looks like this in summer:


And like this, after 1 became three (actually 4, the other section went back to the original location).

divided pennisetum


Allium ‘Mt Sinai’ was being overtaken by weeds and not reaching its fullest potential.


So it too was divided and doubled and used to fill in various open spaces in the newly extended bed and elsewhere.

allium divisions

allium divisions 2


And finally, a Weigela of some sort that I took home from a conference in 2014 and hid in a remote locale, was saved and put in a prominent spot in my new bed where she can feel free to spread her wings and grow to her heart’s content.

weigela red

Total cost (if you ignore my labor) is $0.00. And there is more where that came from. I’ve still got irises to divide and grasses to divide and plenty of coneflower volunteers that need a new home.

Not only am I saving money, but by increasing the count of my perennials, I am adding repetition to my garden design and creating greater visual impact by using larger numbers of the same plant.

A win-win-win.

Dangerous Garden Advice Ahead

“Over promise and under deliver”

“Measure once and cut twice”

“Fool me once, shame on … actually, let’s fast forward to the fool me twice part.”

Mantras I live by, albeit unintentionally, in life and in the garden.

I’m not proud but I own it. My therapist would be proud.

With that in mind, here are six things I won’t be doing in the garden this season. I’m sure you’re sick of all those positive blog posts encouraging you with ways to make your garden shine. You want justification to be lazy and skimp on all that work. I get that and that is what I am here to do for you today.

So with that in mind, my goal in sharing these shortcomings with you is that you’ll either:

a. Do the opposite in order to not be like this lazy and uninformed gardener
b. Feel just as comfortable as I do in ignoring them as I’ll share my twisted justification with you.

Here we go:

1)Get a soil test – every year I say I am going to do it and every year I forget about it amid the excitement and pressure to add more plants to my garden in spring. Call it lazy or call it having one’s priorities messed up, it simply doesn’t happen. While I get the benefits of understanding my soil and all that it is comprised of and what it is lacking, I’m to the point now where I know what plants I can stick in the ground and feel confident that they’ll survive in their new surroundings.


2)Fertilize – no chemicals for this guy, as I’m talking about natural options. I’ve read up on what works best for what plant and I’ll even go as far as purchasing the supplements, but that is where it ends. Maybe it is due to the fact that I have a “survival of the fittest” mentality when it comes to my garden; if you don’t like my clay soil and poor drainage and deer, f you, I know many others who do and they never complain. Or I could just be plain lazy (sensing a trend here?).

3)Careful planning before planting – I could barely type this due to my howling laughter. L O frickin L. Planning is boring, true gardeners buy what they like and ask questions later. Almost all Some of my greatest plant combos/vignettes were created by accident.

misc g

The few times where I actually developed a well thought out plan, it bombed terribly and I ended up starting over.

4)Always properly space your plants – If you have “Plant Location ADD” like me, this doesn’t matter. No plant gets a chance to reach its full size before I relocate it. So I say stuff those plants as close together as you can and enjoy the lack of bare earth. If you are a patient gardener, my hat is off to you but just know we can never be friends.

5)Do not plant or transplant on hot sunny days – I’ll do it when I want to and nobody can stop me. Plus all of my best design ideas occur in summer when all plants have emerged and are thriving. That is when we have the best view and perspective. And I sure ain’t waiting until fall to realize those ideas.

If we continue to make it so easy and coddle our plants, how are they going to survive when times really get tough? Teach them young that it life is tough and they will thank you later. Give them some water and they’ll find a way to make it through.

6)Stop and smell the roses:

a. I don’t grow roses – thanks soil and thanks deer
b. Who’s got time to actually enjoy the garden when there is work to do.
c. Damn kids and their activities getting in the way
d. I’ll enjoy it tomorrow … after I divide this grass … and extend this bed … and divide these irises.
e. I have a deviated septum and have virtually no sense of smell


Canada Thistle Removal

Here is a picture of a peony.


Pretty, right? Well that is the end of pretty for today. Hope you enjoyed it.

My last few posts have focused on the the progress in my garden and how wonderful it all looks. Fun stuff for sure, but I need to get a dirty little secret off of my chest. More than ever before, I’m fighting off a vicious attack from …

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense):

canadian thistle 2

And there is no one to blame but myself.

I enjoy weeding. I really do. I’ve even considered creating an exercise video based on the core movements required for proper weeding. It is a test of strength, mobility and a lightness of touch needed to ensure the entire root system has been removed.

But not all weeds are created equally. And unfortunately, I’m a “once and done” weed guy. I never spray chemicals and in fact, never use any sort of spray, even if it is natural and safe. I don’t have the patience to wait for them to die; once I am in eradication mode, I want them out of sight.

This works well for some weeds and not for others. Who can forget my journey with Red Sorrel? I’m still fighting that battle; but we can discuss that at another time.

Similar to how I first attacked the red sorrel, when the Canada Thistle started to pop up in high volume, I grabbed my gloves and a trowel and went to work.

I dug deep enough to be able to grab the roots without touching the painful barbs and softly yanked them out trying to grab as much of the root as possible.

Once and done.

Out of sight and out of mind.

But not so fast.

Within no time, the Canada Thistle was back and badder than before. Like literally within the week. Most intelligent beings would research why this was the case, but not me. I went back to popping them out only to see them emerge again, nearly doubling in count. They were like the frickin Gremlins.

canadian thistle

canadian thistle 3

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times … and it is time to hit up Google.

Damn was I doing it all wrong.

I knew the Canada Thistle root system was extensive, but up to 15 feet deep? Holy s. And each time you break off a root by pulling it out of the ground, you are theoretically creating two new plants by splitting the root in half. Double the bastards to deal with in the future. Why didn’t I just take a minute to read up on this before jumping into the fray blindly?

Well now I’ve learned and it is time to attack these in a different way.  As I’ve now read, the best option is to prepare for a long and drawn out battle. By cutting them to the ground first and then cutting off the subsequent new growth on a weekly basis, the nutrient reserves in the roots are slowly spent and eventually, this perennial will die (or so we should hope).

So that is what I did.

canadian thistle 5

canadian thistle 6

And as you can see, there were kind of a lot to deal with.

canadian thistle 4

The goal is to keep this up on a regular basis and under no circumstances can I allow them to flower so they can spread their ugly little wings.

canadian thistle 7

And while this may prove to be a successful plan, the absolute best option is to plant, plant and plant. As the old adage goes, give weeds no exposure to the sun and no room to grow. For me, my best bet is to plant Bee Balm and let it take over.

bee balm

It is working in many areas of the garden so why not grow them everywhere?

More to come as the new canada thistle weeding plan unfolds.

Pruning the Redtwig Dogwood

It may be snowing here in New Jersey as I write this, but it didn’t stop me from heading outdoors and completing another gardening task today. Today was all about pruning the Redtwig Dogwood ‘Arctic Fire’.

My lone Redtwig Dogwood is unfortunately, in a location where I can’t let it grow as large as it desires. ‘Arctic Fire’ maxes out at about 5′ x 4′ (don’t believe what a lot of other sites will tell you). I had no other choice but to plant it in a bed along the front of my home where I’ve managed to shield it from the deer for years now. Anywhere else in the yard and it would be toast.

Because of that, I potentially have to prune it for size control for the first time this spring.

Here she is last summer just about outgrowing its spot.
redtwig dogwood

And last Fall after shedding its leaves.

And as of this morning.
pruning redtwig dogwood

If size wasn’t an issue, I don’t think pruning the Redtwig Dogwood would even be a need at this point. As you can see below, the stems are all still wonderfully fire truck red.
pruning redtwig dogwood 4

So let’s now unveil the final decision via video. How will he be pruning the Redtwig Dogwood?

There we have it. Time to chop it down to the ground.

And just like that …
pruning redtwig dogwood 2

Yes, another big hole in the garden but if we want to experiment and learn, this is a necessity.
pruning redtwig dogwood 3

So another pruned shrub to keep a close eye on this spring/summer. Fun stuff.

And by the way, I used my new favorite pruners for pruning the Redtwig Dogwood and for pruning the Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’. And that would be the Corona Anvil Pruner.
corona pruners

Nothing has ever worked or felt better in the hand. A serious endorsement for this one.

Have a great weekend.

Pruning Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’

Today was the official start of the gardening season. I completed my first official gardening “task”. And by task, I mean getting outside, freezing the ass off and performing some sort of physical labor. That task was pruning Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’. A shrub that I absolutely adore. 

But first, allow myself … to introduce myself and what the plan of attack would be for this shrub.

With that in mind, here is what she looked like by the end of last summer.


Just about ready to really take over my deck. The only choice I see is to cut it back severely in order to keep it in bounds. Not to mention the possibility of improving on the white and pink variegation in spring.   

So this is where we started off today.

pruning salix

As you can see below, the buds have just started to form on the branches so pruning Salix time is of the essence.

pruning salix 2

I didn’t take photos of the actual pruning of the Salix, as I basically cut all of the branches down to about 12-18 inches off of the ground. Even with some of the thicker branches (close to 2″ in diameter) I was able to cut these down using hand pruners and a little brute force.

I did my best, where possible, to cut right above a bud in hopes of having the newly chopped down branches leaf out in a well shaped manner. Honestly I don’t even know if it was necessary but we will see how it plays out.

pruning salix 4

After the severe pruning of the Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, here is what she looked like.

pruning salix 3

pruning salix 6

A rather large hole in the garden right now, but I’m willing to put up with it knowing how quickly this shrub puts out growth each year.

All in all, the pruning took no more than 5 minutes with minimal effort. Now the waiting game begins.

pruning salix 5

Pruning Salix is only one of the many planned severe prunings I have planned for this spring. As always, I will be sure to track the results throughout the spring/summer/fall/winter.

I would love to hear all of your feedback in the comments section if you’ve pruned your Salix in the past.


Deer resistant perennials for wet soil

A friend in town, who only recently became aware of this life changing blog, asked me for some plant recommendations. Oh shit. Typically I am not a fan of doling out plant advice because the pressure can become crippling.

If the recommended plant doesn’t survive, I’m scorned at the next basketball game.

If the suggested choice can’t be found at the local nursery, I’m no longer trusted and the kids aren’t invited to any more birthday parties.

But I’m putting it all on the line today.

Without fear.

I am that confident with the choices I’m about to offer up. The following perennials (staying away from grasses for now; he’ll have to buy me lunch first) are very specific to the conditions we have here in zone 6B New Jersey. Throw in deer and rabbits galore.  And a high water table which leads to very poor draining soil.

So my local homey, here are the top 7 perennials that I can vouch for based on my personal experience. Each has thrived for at least 5 years running and all show no signs of slowing down.

Click on the hyperlink for each plant name for additional info where applicable.

You are welcome in advance.

#1 – Joe Pye Weed close to 6 feet tall, blooms are long lasting, attracts numerous critters  and looks good all the way into the fall.

joe pye weed

joe pye and miscanthus


#2 – Amsoniathe deer have never touched it, great bluish blooms in spring followed by fine textured foliage all summer. But Fall is when it shines with unbelievable colors ranging from yellow to orange.   





#3 – Astilbeno critter has ever touched it, appreciates oodles of moisture, blooms in white and pink and red in late spring and the fern like foliage separates itself from others.   




#4 – Bee Balmthe scent keeps the deer at bay, the bees flock to it and the blooms last all summer and even into fall. I personally love the taller options which make their presence known in the garden.




#5 – Purple Coneflower – yes they are everywhere but it is still an oldie but goodie. Multiplies like mad so there is a full supply year to year. Consistent blooms without a care in the world.   




#6 – Lobelia – cherishes the waterlogged soil and provides late summer blooms.


blue lob


#7 – Mountain Mint not the showiest, but what a critter magnet. I could stand over these in bloom all day.



We’ll talk again in spring dude but start doing your homework now if you want to continue to hang with me.

What I Did Right in 2014

I mulched one of my hydrangea today in hopes of protecting it this winter. Never mind that the deer can still find it and chow down on those delicious branches. At least I can say I put in about 35% effort.

And with that, I can now safely say that I have officially completed my last garden task outdoors this year. The temperature was in the teens here today and I am shutting it down. No more bulbs to be planted or weeds to be removed. Hibernation is in full effect.

Because of this, I am in a reflective mood. How did I do this gardening season? Have things progressed as expected? Am I any closer to hosting tours of my garden? Am I getting better at this? The answers are not too bad, not really, not even close and sort of.

For today, I am looking back on what I think I did right in 2014. As I look back on this year and review my many photos, I am proud of what I accomplished. Some things were small, others a long time coming and in some cases, I was simply lucky.

So sit back, grab your favorite beverage, crawl under your heated blanket, forget what is going on outside, turn off your TV’s and iPods and relive the 2014 gardening season with me. Coming to an IMAX theater near you soon …

Technically the dirty work was accomplished back in fall of 2013, but I reaped the rewards this spring. I used to shrug off the importance of early blooming bulbs as I find them fleeting and it is still too cold outside to truly enjoy them. All of that is true, but those first crocuses provide a spark after a long cold winter. They are a sign of things to come. I am thrilled that I finally loaded up on them and eagerly await their arrival already.



More with the bulb theme. I know definitively that I cannot grow tulips in the ground. They easily rot by spring. But what I can do is grow them in containers and store them in the garage over the winter. Come spring, once they show signs of growth I place them out in the sun and voila, we’ve got blooms. Who needs to spend $15 for them around Easter when you can buy 45 of them for like $3.99.




Simply put, you cannot have enough Allium ‘Globemaster’ and their giant 8″ blooms. Took me long enough to finally realize this.



It had been a few years, but I finally got back to growing lettuce and other vegetables in containers on my deck. The deer and rabbits can’t find them, I can control the soil and it easy to move them around for watering and various sun exposures. And it’s cheap. And the taste ain’t so bad either.



Don’t critique me, but I finally allowed many of my native plants to reseed wherever their heart desired and that resulted in more and more of these visitors.



You say this shrub has outgrown its location; I say right shrub, right conditions and it is just overly happy. Grow freely you beautiful Salix.



I read about a Carex/Ajuga combo in one of my hundred gardening books and jotted down the idea on a piece of paper. Go me for finally following through on something.



A Longwood Gardens visit was a long time coming.



I may not have succeeded in creating it in my own garden yet, but I promise you a “framed view” is always top of mind these days. Thanks James Golden!

federal twist garden12


I know I know, Baptisia are fantastic. Better late than never right?



Maybe my greatest accomplishment this year. A visit to the High Line. I’m thinking semi annual event going forward.

high line 30


The addition of multiple Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’ already paid off in year one. I am giddy with anticipation for year two.



I wish I could take credit for this one, but the sudden emergence of like 50 Milkweed plants was simply magical. Some times it’s better to be lucky than good.



Using grasses to protect the tomatoes was a stroke of genius.

grasses protect veggies2



Getting him involved is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.



On a personal note, getting a chance to be on the radio (twice) was very cool. Hopefully a few more opps are in the cards this upcoming year.



Now it is time to sit back, enjoy what was and start planning for next year.



Transplanting my excess Monarda (Bee Balm)

As I was recently stressing/obsessing over how to fill in some bare spots in my garden, three things came to mind:

  • New plants are expensive
  • I have a somewhat limited range of plants that work with my conditions
  • Repetition in the garden is good and pleasing to the eye

With that in mind, the obvious choice was to take my excess Monarda (Bee Balm) plants and relocate them to where they can spread to their heart’s content.

Nothing has thrived in my garden more the past few years than Monarda as they have easily doubled in size in just the last two years alone. I love the fact that they spread and fill in aggressively without acting as a true thug.

I started with this location as you can see they are starting to take over the neighboring Juniper:

Why not grab a few that are closest to the Juniper and simply dig them out and move them:

I find it incredibly simple to just place a trowel into the soil underneath the stem of plant, wiggle it a bit to loosen up the roots and then yank it out with my hand:  

And just like that, you have yourself a new plant. You can clearly see from the roots how this perennial spreads so easily:  

I quickly determined where to move my new Bee Balm. This one was going to be relocated between two Miscanthus:

In it went:

And then to assist in the plant’s establishment, I snipped off the spent flowers and all of the leaves so the plant’s energy could be focused on root development (Quick note – I made the decision to do it this way on my own and cannot vouch if I did everything scientifically correct here):

The plant was then deeply watered and left to do its thing. Now we just wait and see how it all plays out.

I moved close to ten of these Monarda and a bunch of Purple Coneflowers as well and it didn’t cost me a dime. They are the gift that keeps on giving.

By the way, I am well aware of the powdery mildew on my Bee Balm:

I even wrote a post about it last year (which you can read here).

My typical move is to cut these down to the ground around this time each year but I’m leaving them all alone this year just to see if it truly causes any future issues. I also enjoy the spent blooms in the fall and covered in snow in winter.

Damn this stuff is fun isn’t it?      

Hiding the vegetables

With all of the deer that roam my property, I have struggled to grow my own vegetables, outside of some container grown tomatoes on my deck. Yes, I could fence in an area to keep them out, but that is assuming:

A) I have the initiative
B) The time to do so.

Not so much.

I was smart enough to create a raised bed and amend the soil in this bed a few years ago. I am not a complete buffoon. A variety of herbs from basil to rosemary to thyme to oregano to parsley have thrived here. All that was missing were the vegetables. And all I needed to do was find a way to keep the herds out. It seems simple enough but the task eluded me for years.  

This spring I bought a bunch of Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’ because … well … that’s what I do. I had no plan for where they would be planted so I circled the house 3 to 4 times before settling on a spot surrounding my raised bed. That is when the light bulb went off:

I love grasses
Deer don’t like grasses 
Why don’t I hide my raised bed behind grasses  

It was a win/win/win.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to come up with this simple concept but it is what it is. No time to look back and lament.

Here is what the raised bed looks like today:

And all of the tomatoes I planted this year have yet to be touched:

I even harvested a ton of seed grown green beans for the first time:

And I have been eating kale right off the plant for weeks now.

I think I am on to something here.

I plan on adding some cool season grasses as well so there is coverage while the warm season grasses are coming into their own. I also have a bunch of boxwood in the area so it is a garden filled with anti deer venom.

I know, you don’t have to say it … I’m a genius.

And by the way, be on the lookout for an upcoming post from my wife who will tell you about her favorite tomato (you’re welcome hon) and a recipe that includes said tomato.


Dividing Karl Foerster Grass

UPDATE 8/24/17: I am writing this 3+ years after the original post. Just wanted to let you all know that the divisions are thriving and you can see how they look now by clicking here.




I am still in the process of recovering from all of the plants that were lost over this past harsh winter; specifically trying to replace said plants. I have purchased some new shrubs and moved some other plants around to fill the voids. It’s a pain in the ass but I love it. The challenge of pulling it all together keeps me going at 200 mph day and night.

Now we all know that plants are not particularly cheap these days. So one of the ways I significantly cut down on those costs is by dividing my existing plants. With a little bit of elbow grease, one plant becomes three or four new plants.

Recently, I identified a few open spots in my front bed that could accommodate relatively narrow plants with a decent bit of height. The exposure is about half sun/half shade. I consulted the plant inventory in my brain and had the perfect option within seconds … ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass.

I have had a bunch of these in the same location for four years now and they have never let me down. They look good as early as April (they are cool season grasses so start emerging pretty quickly in the spring) and hold up all through summer, fall and even winter:

It was dividing Karl Foerster grass time . I had yet to divide them but knew it would be an easy task.

So out came the shit kicking boots and I was ready to do the deed:

The grasses have shown signs of life the past week so I knew now was a good time to divide them before they grew out any more and became less manageable:

I decided to dig out one completely from the ground and placed it in the lawn. It couldn’t have been easier to dig it out:

With a few quick and strong daggers into the grass with my shovel, one easily became four. Dividing Karl Foerster grass is fun!:

One of the divisions went right back into the same hole:

And another filled in a bare spot between this Boxwood and Ninebark:

I eventually settled on adding all three of the divisions into the same garden bed for some repetition and nice contrast with their surrounding plant brethren. Dividing Karl Foerster grass is like super fun yo:

The entire task took no more than twenty minutes and very little physical labor. I immediately watered all of the divisions and it was a wrap. Dividing Karl Foerster grass is easy and way way super fun.

Next time you are looking to fill in some bare spots in your own garden, think about dividing some of what you already have. It couldn’t be easier as witnessed by my stellar dividing Karl Foerster grass process above.