A Grass Undivided Cannot Stand

Of all garden chores, I think that dividing plants may be my least favorite. Even so, there comes a time when it cannot be avoided any longer.

Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border.


There are two enormous ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border. Switchgrass rarely needs dividing, but these two have been there for at least ten years.

‘Northwind’ is considered a particularly upright variety of an upright species. However, the last couple of years these particular specimens have become increasingly floppy. Β Also, it’s hard to tell but I think that they’re becoming a bit open at the center.


The thing is, I’m quite intimidated by the prospect of this operation. These two Switchgrass are probably 3′ across at the base. How the heck am I going to dig them out of the ground?

And once they’re out of the ground, will I need a crosscut saw? An ax? A chainsaw? Dynamite?


Would anyone care to offer any advice or encouragement?



61 Comments on “A Grass Undivided Cannot Stand”

  1. Would the company that helped you with your yard be able to take on this task? If so, I highly recommend that approach.

    I have zebra grass in my yard and one is currently 11′ tall and 7′ wide – it’s a monster. I know it needs divided and there is no way I can do it myself. The last time was 7 years ago and it took 2 men to do the job and at that time it was only 4′ wide. My son called the hole they dug then an asteroid crater πŸ™‚

    There’s no way around it – dividing grasses is an arduous job. A healthy grass is your reward though.

    • I’m going to call them, since I’m thinking I’ll hire them again to do spring clean up. They could do the dividing at the same time. Though I’d like the dividing done in the fall if possible so the grasses have more time to recover before the growing season.

  2. I once saw a segment on a PBS show – don’t recall which one – that talked about this very problem. The person interviewed raised ornamental grasses and had many. His approach was to use a ‘Sill Saw’ to core out the bare space in the center (called ‘lodging’). That caused the grass to grow inward and fill in the spot. I recall he mentioned that he was not interested in dividing the grasses because he had so many but wanted them to remain attractive.
    These grasses have very deep roots and you can find a wonderful poster demonstrating their prodigious depth by doing a search for ‘ornamental root systems’. Be prepared to be awed.

      • Sorry. I used the wrong name – and committed a typo at the same time. The item I saw used was a reciprocating saw. The person talking about it said it was a way to get the grasses growing upright without having to deal with where to put divisions. I believe he had many (dozens?) types of grass already and didn’t want more. The rest of us might go for the divide and replant school.
        I know that a regular garden hand saw is pretty useless against an uprooted miscanthus. I’ve had some success gleaning a few rootlings from the outside of a large root ball. But they take off fast are regrow with vigor. … GREAT vigor.

  3. Jason , I have not completely divided a grass because just digging it up almost killed me ! In my experience , once you dig it out you out need a small segment to replant. In any case , a recip saw (i.e. Sawzall) is very useful .

  4. Having dug and divided a Miscanthus that had only been in the ground for three or four years, I can confirm that the root system is dense, deep and difficult. Assuming the Panicum has a similar root system and considering that your plant has been in the ground for a decade you should consider hiring a contractor/landscape professional. You will get the job done and your back will appreciate it.

  5. I hate dividing big grasses too and usually need to pause for a beer after the digging process, but the last time I did it, I think I used either an old chef’s knife (handier than you might think for such things) or a serated pruning saw to hack through it and then remove the dead bits in the center. The old jump-on-the-shovel technique doesn’t really work for those.

  6. I’ve dug up Panicums before, not as wide as yours, but it was definitely doable, with just a sharp spade. The roots are not as deep or tenacious as Miscanthus. I did it after I cut them back almost to the ground in the early spring, before they started growing. I bet you could take bits off all around the edges, to make the clumps smaller. Do it when the soil around them is moist.

  7. I dug out six big grasses last week. I was very tired of them falling over on the other plants and had no desire to have to stake them every year. I grabbed a regular heavy metal shovel and started digging. These were wide but the roots weren’t too deep. I have some zebra to move in a couple of weeks. I have in the past taken a small tree saw and cut them in half to assist in getting them out. I like to divide. If we lived closer, I’d divide and you could share your Mexican Sunflowers. πŸ™‚

  8. I have no advice to impart, but in fact have exactly the same situation with a “ring” of beautiful ornamental grass in one of my backyard borders. I know it needs dividing – it’s a 3′ donut with a 12″ centre that is bare – but the thought of tackling it is indeed daunting. So I’ve procrastinated. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.

  9. I dug up one Panicum (Northwind, I think) this past spring.

    It was Not Fun.

    But not impossible.

    I toyed briefly with the idea of planting a portion of it and starting over, but decided against it and planted a sweetbay magnolia instead.

    The good news is that I have not seen the switchgrass try to come back even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t get 100% of the roots. So there’s that…

  10. I love dividing plants! It may be my favourite gardening task of all. I would offer to help, but there is a massive pond between us and quite a bit of land, come to think of it. The only large grass I have ever divided was Stipa gigantea, and it was a doddle. Not terribly deep-rooted and broke into pieces very easily. I do grow Panicum, so your post has reminded me to get in and divide them sooner, rather than later. (I meant to do it last year, but was too busy – isn’t that always the way?) Good luck with it!

    • My understanding is that the Panicums need dividing every ten years or so. Of course, if you do it earlier, they’ll be easier to handle. If only you were closer you would be most welcome to take part in dividing our plants – heck, you could do all of it – I wouldn’t mind at all!

  11. I’ve found it easier to do in the spring I’ve divided and moved some good sized clumps of sorghastrum, little bluestem,switchgrass, and molinia. A couple of years ago I had to dig some in the fall for a building project. It was much easier in the spring, just as they start to break dormancy.

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