Taking care of perennials

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener


Spring will officially arrive early next week, but we are getting a preview this week. The nice weather coaxes us out of the house and a new gardening season begins in earnest. Clean-up operations will continue, with a lot of ornamental grasses and spent perennials to cut back. I will still put most of the debris in an area at the edge of the woods. A lot of insects have over-wintered in such debris and piling up the refuse allows the life therein to emerge.

Many of the early perennials have sprouted. This is a great time to dig and divide perennials. It is easier to deal with the shorter foliage at this time and the plants will rebound more quickly if re-planted this early. The dig and divide method is one of the most effective forms of plant asexual reproduction. Many perennials need to be dug and divided every three to five years to ensure the clump continues to thrive. If you have a perennial whose flowers were a little smaller than usual last year, that is a good indication that the plant would benefit from division.

However, division and other forms of asexual reproduction present some legal, ethical and even moral questions. It is illegal to asexually propagate patented plants. Plant breeders protect their interests in new cultivars by applying for patents on the plants. A patent is good for twenty years from the date of the application. This protects a breeder from unfair competition. Otherwise, a competitor could buy a plant and then reproduce it from divisions, cuttings or even bud grafts, and then sell the new cultivar under a different name. Breeders also often get a copyright on the common names of new plant cultivars. The patents and copyrights mean no one may sell this particular genetic plant makeup unless licensed to do so by the patent holder.

However, there is some muddy area in the plant patent world. Does a patent mean that it is illegal to propagate the plant, or that is illegal to sell such plants? As noted above, many plants, such as daylilies, really should be divided every three to five years. If a daylily cultivar is patented, but needs to be divided to keep growing vigorously, is the gardener allowed to plant back more than one plant? Should the remaining divisions be discarded and destroyed? Some patent lawyers have argued that this should be the case. However, I am not aware of anyone who has faced charges or been fined for planting such divisions in his or her own yard. The question is further clouded if one shares these divisions. On plants not protected by patents, such divisions are generally called pass-along plants. You will find such plants at virtually every garden club plant sale. Gardeners are generous people, and friends rarely leave without some pass-along plant to take back to their own gardens. If one passes along a division of a patented plant, has a crime been committed? If it is sold at a plant sale, have ethical or moral lines been crossed?

In actuality, I suppose there is little risk that a breeder will try to bring charges against a home gardener, so it becomes a question of one’s own ethics. Personally, I see nothing wrong with planting such divisions in my own yard. After all, I have paid for the privilege to have the cultivar in my garden when I purchased the parent plant. I do not knowingly pass along patented plants to others, but, I must admit, I cannot say for sure which plants in my garden are patented cultivars, especially when it comes to common plants like daylilies and hostas. I certainly would not sell plants that are patented.

However, there are also many plants at Sandhill Gardens that have resulted from sexual reproduction. Seedlings of many plants come up in places where I do not want them. I take cuttings of plants that my grandmother planted in the 1920’s and 1930’s and divide plants that have been here so long that the patent protection has expired. Therefore, I will have plenty of plants for the annual plant exchange later this spring. Get out and check your garden for things you may wish to trade.


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