Using the proper tools of the trade |

Using the proper tools of the trade

Each year I marvel at the intensity with which spring arrives in the foothills. Before it started snowing I pruned a large spray of wild plum that was beginning to open its blossoms.

Within hours of placing the woody stem in warm water, half of the delicate white flowers were open from the warmth of my wood stove. A day later this single branch was a breathtaking statement of spring inside my house while the world outside was white with snow.

Undaunted by this recent snow, hundreds of daffodils on my property are now staging their annual show. A few of the early bloomers were bent to the ground, but even some of those are straightening up as warm sun follows the storms.

The sturdiest Narcissus through all the vagaries of late winter (or is this early spring?) in my garden seems to be a daffodil that is frequently found on old homesteads. It’s possible that the hundreds on my property were originally planted long before I was born. It is larger than the miniatures, but definitely smaller than most of the cultivars now sold as bulbs for fall planting.

Many gardeners would not think of moving bulbs at this time of the year, but with the right tool and weather conditions, a clump of bulbs is easily lifted and divided. In my garden, some of the bulbs are in too much shade, naturalizing near trees and shrubs that exclude light. Others are small clumps that will grow faster and bloom sooner if they are lifted and replanted with soft rock phosphate available to the roots. Each year I relocate dozens of bulbs to a sunnier location or to friends’ gardens.

The soil is moist and the weather still cool. With a good garden fork (not a pitchfork), the entire clump may be lifted without damage to the roots. Working quickly so the roots do not dry out, replant the bulbs in their new location. Sometimes the new hole may be dug with the fork also. The fork also allows the gardener to dig into moist soil with less damage to the soil texture. Shovels are more likely to cause compaction, especially in clay soil.

Whether you divide the bulbs or replant without separating, use plenty of phosphorus below the bulbs. Soft rock phosphate is an excellent source of phosphorus, and will not burn the roots. A little oyster shell should be added at the same time.

Using a garden fork is a key to success with any transplanting. This essential garden tool allows you to lift a plant without cutting into its roots. To dig up a clump of daffodils, insert the fork a few inches from the foliage and use the tines as a lever to lift the root ball. Usually a single insertion of the fork will accomplish the task.

Moving a larger plant such as an ornamental shrub may also be accomplished with the garden fork. If a plant is particularly deep-rooted, a good shovel may be needed to finish the task but always start with the fork to minimize damage to the root system. The first insertion of the fork should be eighteen to twenty-four inches from the center of the crown. Determine how extensive and widespread the root system is before digging too closely (and losing roots in the process).

There is another tool I consider essential to good garden practices. The “Hori Hori Weeder-Root Cutter” is described in the Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply catalog as a weeding tool for tough soil. However, it is much more than that. In my rock garden it is the perfect tool for lifting or planting small bulbs and alpine plants. I have not used trowel since I discovering this marvelous tool!

The weight of the Hori Hori makes it a good tool for breaking up root balls when plants are removed from nursery containers. Smack the flat of the blade against the root ball several times to loosen the roots before planting. The serrated edges of the tool may be used to score roots that are too tight.

This versatile tool is also perfect for dividing mature perennials and ornamental grasses. Cut a mature clump into two sections with the tool, then try to pull apart smaller divisions by hand so that roots are not cut again. Dividing plants is a garden task that should be finished by the end of March, when active growth will increase the chance of shock.

Take advantage of this mild weather! It is a good time to plant all nursery stock. Bareroot season will soon be ending, and with it the opportunity to add more edibles. Only a snowstorm or thunderstorm, or maybe a very heavy rain, should chase you out of the garden to read by the fire.

Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 28 years. She is the owner of Foothill Cottage Gardens ( Send your garden questions and comments to

“Vermiculture – Composting with Worms”

Saturday, March 1710 a.m.-noon

NID Demonstration Garden

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