Hatchet job

I should say PITCHFORK job ...

When Louise Mockaitis is wielding her pitchfork, stand back! I visited her this morning in the Spring Gardens community garden to watch her divide a clump of iris. Now I know this sounds terribly exciting but guess what. It was. Now I know how to do it. As they say on TV, priceless.

Blog Image 319912 - smith

Louise has deep purple bearded iris that her sister in Elmira, N.Y., gave her. The rhizomes are at least a decade old. To get the most blooms and have the healthiest plants, they need to be divided every three years or so, Louise says. Using her pitchfork, she attacked the dry soil of her garden plot and skillfully upended a large clump.

She shook the dirt off the roots and using her bare hands, pulled the gnarled clump apart - with difficulty. But she did it, pulling off one rhizome at a time. Her other iris now will have room to breathe and the divided ones will thrive elsewhere.

Louise says that when you're trying to figure out where to divide, look for a 'Y' shape with the rhizome in the middle and the leafy part on the sides. And when you replant, plant with the fans - the leafy parts - going out. (Trim them to a few inches in length so that they look like a 'V' as you look at them.) Be sure to bury the rhizome only half-way. Yes, half is exposed on top and half is buried in soil. What can I say? Iris are weird.

But they're very resiliant. So if you can't get the divided rhizomes in the ground immediately, you're probably OK. But try. You can soak them in a bucket in the meantime. "This is stressful for a plant," Louise says.

And speaking of stress, best to do all this in the cooler parts of the day, as much for yourself as for the iris. Of course, on a day like today, there IS no cooler part. We were sweating. Actually, I was taking notes and photos. Tough work, to be sure, but poor Louise did all the real work! As I said, she's a pro.