By Sean Conway

A spade, the most useful garden tool of all

Recently a friend asked me what my favorite garden tool is. After thinking about the various tools that help make my gardening tasks easier, I decided that the simple pointed shovel was the one tool I depend on most -- at least at this time of year.

April is when I start my annual plant relocation process, and my trusty shovel is frequently pressed into service. Inevitably, there are small trees, shrubs or perennials that have either outgrown their allocated space, crowding their neighbors, or that would look better somewhere else in the garden.

Relocating plants in your garden is a relatively simple task and, after your first success, will change the way you think about your garden.

Early spring is the best time to relocate garden plants. Cool temperatures help the transplants form roots in their new locations before the arrival of warm weather stimulates vigorous new growth. Abundant spring rain is also key to successful transplanting, helping reduce transplant shock and quickly settling soil in and around freshly dug roots, removing unwanted air pockets.

Early spring is not only the best time to relocate plants, in the case of perennials; it is also the best time to divide them. If you are wondering weather your perennials need dividing, a close inspection of the crown will help you decide. (The crown of a plant is the part that lies just at the surface of the soil.) Plants that have grown into clumps with multiple crowns -- that is, multiple locations with newly emerging leaves -- are candidates for dividing.

Some perennials will remain vigorous and healthy after growing into large clumps, but the majority will benefit from dividing every three or four years. Quite often I divide perennials at the same time I relocate them. It can be an inexpensive way to expand your garden.

The best tool for dividing perennials is a sharp, pointed shovel. Start by digging the plant out of the ground, taking care to remove an adequate amount of roots with the clump. To ensure an adequate amount of roots, position the shovel point at the soil surface several inches away from the outer growing edge of the clump. In one quick motion, drive the shovel blade into the soil at about a 45-degree angle toward the roots.

Continue the process around the plant until you end up where you started. Now lift the plant out of the ground using the shovel.

Once the plant is removed from the ground, position the shovel point between two distinct growing points on the crown. Again in one swift motion, drive the shovel blade between the growing points, taking care to end up with roots attached to each separate piece.

You now have two new perennials. Continue the process as needed. I usually divide my perennials into three or four pieces, so I end up with good size clumps.

When you transplant the clumps in new locations, be sure to plant them at the same depth as they were before. It is important to keep the plant's crown at the same level, so be sure not to bury the plant too deeply. Keep in mind that a newly dug hole will settle a bit, so allow for that.

Once relocation season is over in my garden I may be on to a new favorite tool, but for now, I wouldn't be much of a gardener without my trusty shovel.


Sean Conway's book is "Sean Conway's Cultivating Life: 125 Projects for Backyard Living" (Artisan Books, 2009), describes 125 projects for backyard living.


Available at

Cut Your Energy Bills Now: 150 Smart Ways to Save Money & Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green

It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living

Sean Conway's Cultivating Life: 125 Projects for Backyard Living


Copyright ©, Cultivating Life by Sean Conway





Home & Garden - Shovel-Ready Project: Dividing Your Perennials