At the end of the day on Labor Day (see September 3, 2012), we were left with a tarp-full of divided but unplanted Siberian irises and two large clumps of irises waiting to be separated.  We were hoping to wake up one morning and find that the remaining work had been done but two weeks later, nothing has changed.  I guess the garden elves have headed north to get an early start on the Christmas season.

We decided that if we didn’t get to it today, it would not get done before winter.  We started by scouting a location for the already-divided plants (they have been out of the ground for two weeks and we wanted to be sure to replant them before we ran out of energy).  We do not have many full-sun locations on our property and there are not that many partially sunny spots either.  After a tour of the possible locations, we selected the narrow strip of ground between the road and a stone wall that marks the edge of our property.

Nearest to the house, the area is paved with gravel; we use it as a pull-out for parking cars.  Beyond that, the border is mostly weed-covered with two or three clusters of daffodils providing a small (and brief) burst of color in spring.

It is also, of course, very rocky.  In fact, it is literally between a rock (wall) and a hard place (the road).  As I started to dig, my shovel was met with the usual clang of resistance.  The rocks were densely packed but luckily, they were not wedged in too tightly.  As I removed each one, I tossed it onto the top of the stone wall.  Two hundred years ago, this is how the wall was originally constructed.

After a half hour of digging, we had cleared an area about 10 feet in length and 18 inches wide.  Despite its rockiness and less-than-ideal location, the soil here is dark and rich.  Apparently, many years of weed growth have not depleted the soil of its organic matter.

Rachel quickly set the divided irises into the excavation and we covered them with loose soil.  As a final step, I sprinkled the ground with a general-purpose fertilizer (to be on the safe side) and watered it in with two cans-full from the hose (which did not quite reach this remote spot).

Next, we moved back to the ornamental garden and the two clumps of irises that remained to be divided.  After our Labor Day experience we knew what had to be done and started right in (we feared that if we stopped to rest, we might lose momentum).  I won’t repeat the details here but we did learn a few important lessons.

First, digging in the garden—even shallow digging—is best done shortly after a rainfall.  When we worked on Labor Day, it had not rained for a week.  The ground was hard and dry and that made the digging difficult and dusty.  Today, after a light rain yesterday, the soil was softer and more cohesive.  Digging still required a lot of effort but it took significantly less hacking with the shovel to get the irises free.

Second, once the clump of irises has been pulled up, trimming their leaves all at once makes separating the roots a lot easier.  On Labor Day, Rachel clipped each divided rhizome individually, a time-consuming last step.  This time around, we used a hedge trimmer to trim all of the irises at once.  Essentially, we gave each clump, still intact, a haircut.

Third, and most significantly, this has to done much more often.  One of the two clumps we divided today was so tightly compacted and so jammed full of rocks and soil that it was next to impossible to split into pieces.  I managed to break the small gardening fork while trying to pry the roots apart and I can understand why some people would be tempted to use a hatchet or axe for the job.  I have heard that some gardeners do this yearly—my hat is off to them—but every two or three years seems like a reasonable interval.

Of course, that last lesson will be the hardest to follow up on.  In two or three years, the irises may not be as compacted as they were today but I will be that much older and less enthusiastic about taking on this onerous chore.