Q: We have some very old peonies that no longer are blooming much, and we want to move them to a sunny corner. Are we too late to dig and replant them? Are we likely to have any problems? Is it right that we should replant them near the surface?
A: You are certainly not too late to move peonies. Unlike other perennials, peonies cope with relocation most easily if they are moved at the beginning of their dormant season. You may be a little early, though. If your peony leaves still look green and healthy, go ahead and prepare their new holes. Then wait to dig the plants until their leaves begin to change to fall colors. The peonies will thank you for your patience.
If the peonies are old plants, you will discover that the crowns are bigger than anything you can carry around and plunk down in a new hole. Plan to divide the crowns into sections; line up friends or family to take the surplus. Dividing the crowns will be hard work, requiring a sturdy shovel and a sharp blade. The top of each crown will show a scattering of growth buds. Cut the crown into sections with three or four buds. Those pieces will be the right size to start new plants.
To prepare the ground for peonies, dig out grass, weeds, and any other possible competition for several inches around. Peonies may live half a century, but their defense systems are rudimentary. Every peony needs a gardener to keep its space cleared. Unless the soil is of highest quality, a shovelful of compost is always a good addition. Do not add fertilizer in the planting hole. If poor quality soil has you worrying that the peony will suffer malnutrition, add a little high phosphorus fertilizer on top of the finished planting.
And yes, planting depth is crucial to flowering. With our cold winters, the top of peony crowns should be at least an inch deep, but never more than two inches. Deeper planting means that the plant will live but will not be able to bloom. One common reason why a healthy peony stops flowering is that over the years enough dust has blown in to add more dirt over the crown. Botanists are still trying to figure out why the maximum depth is two inches. I have read a few theories but none that sounds plausible.
Another cause of inability to flower is too much shade from nearby trees or bushes. They may have grown enough to shade peonies without anyone noticing that the shadows were lengthening.
A third reason for healthy peonies with no flowers is too much nitrogen. Peonies do like rich soil, but that is best accomplished with organic amendments like old manure and compost. If you add a commercial fertilizer, be sure to use one with less nitrogen than phosphorus.
Q: I thought that peonies were supposed to offer beautiful fall color. Why do mine just turn brown?
A: Fall color in peonies, as in many other perennials, depends on weather. For several years in a row, early frosts have killed my peony leaves while they were still green. Keep your fingers crossed. Some of my peonies are turning yellow and orange right now. If cold nights hold off, you and I will both see autumn colors on our peony leaves this year.
Some perennials — hardy geraniums, for instance — develop color early enough to have a beautiful display every year. Others, like peonies, are late enough in changing color to be dependent on the weather.
Q: How does compost change the soil?
A: Compost contains a variety of nutrients for plants, exactly the same as the ones in a sack of commercial fertilizer. The difference is that the plant foods in compost are all in a slow-release form. Compost feeds plants slowly, over a period of months. Commercial fertilizer is more likely to provide a binge, more than plants can eat followed by a time of starvation. It is possible to buy commercial fertilizers in slow-release form, but the processes necessary to create them make these fertilizers more expensive.
Most horticulturists believe that the organic origin of compost is more important than its specific nutrients. The richest of soils contain about 5% organic materials. All compost spread on soil adds to the organic percentage. It is the organic material in soil that grows good plants by holding water and releasing it to roots slowly, and by maintaining the air spaces that roots need as much as they need water.
One of the amazing aspects of compost is that it works just as efficiently if spread on the surface as if dug in and mixed with the soil. No digging is required. An experiment some years ago checked nutrient levels a few inches deep, three months after compost was spread. It had been left on the surface in one place, tilled under in another. Nutrients were exactly the same in both places. That is welcome news for lazy gardeners like me. I do no hard work that I can avoid.
Q: Do I need to worry about the little bugs flying around now? Sometimes there are clouds of them on a sunny afternoon.
A: You do not need to worry. They are tiny flies which are small enough to be classified as gnats. I suspect that these gnats are a good food source for migrating warblers and other small songbirds which are heading south for the winter. I see the birds picking meals off plant leaves.
Q: We planted two little trees last month. Is there anything we can do to help them live through winter?
A: The most important aid to their survival will be to give them water twice a week until their leaves fall. Water will help new roots to grow right now, while soil temperatures still are warm. Furthermore, soil which is damp when it freezes protects those new roots better than dry soil.
If you have not spread a circle of organic mulch over the root area of your trees, I recommend doing so now. An inch or two of mulch will help to keep that precious soil moisture from evaporating. Mulch also makes a barrier between bare soil and weed seeds which drift by on the wind. In this way mulch reduces competition from other plants, allowing your young trees to grow faster.
Pick a peck of pumpkins
Picking pumpkins or winter squash? To store them for the longest time in the best possible condition, cure the skin for a week. Their storage room should be hot during the day, even above 80 degrees is fine. The temperature should remain above 50 degrees at night. After a week, they can be kept in a cool place, but the temperatures should always stay above 50 degrees.
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