Ask a Master Gardener: Spring is a great time to divide hostas

Early spring is a great time to divide hostas.

(Posted April 16, 2021)

By Jane Kutzley, Madison County Master Gardener

Question: My hostas were huge and beautiful last year. But, when they died back in the fall, I noticed a couple of dead areas in the middle. Are they okay? 

Many perennials, including hostas, need to be divided every few years. When they are so big and so old that the center is dying, they are practically begging for some serious surgery. Right now, in early spring, is a great time to divide most perennials. They are starting to put up shoots so you can see the size and shape of the plant to come, but they are not yet fully leafed out. You can actually divide hostas anytime; it’s just easier and less damaging without all those leaves in the way. Be sure the ground is dry.  Working in wet soil causes soil compaction which makes root growth more difficult.

Start by digging completely around the plant at least two or three inches out from the outermost growth to allow for roots. Go around the plant several times, digging down and under, allowing plenty of room for roots. If possible, lift the plant completely out of the hole and set it on the ground beside. If it is too big to lift, just do the dividing right where it is and lift it out in pieces.

Examine the plant closely and look for areas where the new growth has some natural gaps. Position your shovel vertically in that gap and cut down through the root mass as quickly and cleanly as you can. Sometimes, the roots are so tough that this becomes a struggle. I’ve had to use a soil knife and saw my way through at times, but that’s okay. Depending on the size of the mother plant, you may need to divide it in half or into three or four parts. Resettle the best-looking division in the original hole and either plant the others in a new location or pass them on to a friend. You may have to add some dirt under the new plant as the original hole may be too deep. It should be planted at the depth it was originally growing. Fill in around it firmly and water well. You will be rewarded with vigorous new growth in a very short time.

It should be noted that, especially for hosta, if the mother plant has died out extensively, and the outer growth is stunted, it may be too late to divide and replant. There is a point of no return at which replacement is the best option.

Many other perennials benefit from being divided every few years. A few that come to mind are coneflower, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), goldenrod (Solidago), beardtongue (Penstemon), and asters.

Jane Kutzley is a member of the Madison County Master Gardeners. Watch for upcoming details about the program’s new Ask A Master Gardener Help Line, coming soon.

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