Treat Yourself to a Peony
Peonies are flowers hardly seen for sale anymore, and, when you do, they are usually bare root and rather unappealing -- even with a pretty picture attached to the bag. What a shame. Once established, this beautiful old perennial lives for decades making a beautiful show in the garden and as a cut flower. So how do you get a peony? One way is to get one from a gardening friend who will share a division from an old, well-established plant. I’ve seen them at plant swaps and local sales, too. Or, you can order from a mail order or online catalog. If you order sight unseen, buy from a Southern company that can ship in the fall and will likely have well-adapted varieties. One example is Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com) outside of Raleigh, N.C. It’s important to choose peonies that are heat tolerant, so look for that in all the descriptions of any you choose. Safe bets are generally many of the early, single-flowered types and old fashioned ones such as Festiva Maxima found on old homesteads throughout the state. The trick to peonies is to plant shallowly. If their bud is deeper than an inch underground, it may not bloom. Also give it a well-drained spot. After that, just water and feed in the spring. The plant gets more and more vigorous over time. If happy, it will probably outlive the gardener.
Another delightful, old-fashioned perennial is the Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis). It is a perennial in areas where the tops freeze back, but will quickly grow back to a height of six feet or more. The farther south you go the taller it gets, often looking like a small tree with big, bold leaves like a hibiscus or hollyhock. A charming flower, the buds and flowers are white, but turn progressively deeper shades of pink as they age, so you will see various colors of flowers on the plant at the same time. Single- and double-flowered types are available. The single-flowered type is also called cotton rose because the bloom looks like the blossom of a cotton plant. The plant will grow up and out like a fig tree or other multi-trunked shrub, so give it room. Again, this is one you will need to lean on a friend for, or look around in market bulletins, plant swaps, and local plant sales. Look for the Confederate rose to be in bloom this month and next. It’s a wonderful autumn finish.
As the weather gets cooler, you can keep lettuce and other greens growing fast under a frost blanket. Although it’s still early for cold protection in most of the state, now is the time to get out your supplies to either build a PVC frame tent or a hoop of fencing over a row of lettuce to keep it growing through frosty weather. At $3 to $4 a bag for lettuce at the grocery store, the savings from growing your own lettuce could pay for the peonies you just read about.
While you think of cover crops as something for large gardens and fields, there is no reason why you can’t plant them in any size vegetable garden that lies fallow in winter, even in raised beds. The principles of adding organic matter and keeping the underground flora healthy are the same. An easy, low growing cover crop for home gardens is clover. It adds nitrogen to the soil and looks pretty while it grows. Try sowing some in your vegetable beds not supporting a fall crop. In the spring, you can mow it down to plant through it or turn it into the ground to decompose. Either way, it will add nitrogen and organic matter to help your spring vegetable crop. Look for seeds at a nearby farm store or order a small bag of seeds through the mail. At the rate of a half-pound per 1,000 square feet, it doesn’t take much to cover raised beds or a small garden. Store the extra in a cool, dry place, or, better yet, an extra fridge to keep leftover seeds viable for next year.
Cover Crops for Little Spots
I found this photo of "pumpkin people" and could not resist sharing. I wish I could tell you exactly how they are constructed, but I’m sure you, clever readers, will quickly figure out a way to fashion your own. The biggest task might be gathering enough clothing, so save the worn out kids’ clothes or head to the thrift store for a supply. This looks like a project little ones would enjoy creating, too.
How’s This For a Useful Contraption?I once visited a man who grew tomatoes for his small farm-stand, all transplants set out by hand. He had hundreds to plant each spring and devised this clever way to get out over the rows while he worked. As you can see from the photo, this "rolling bench" is created from two same-size old bicycles. With the clever attachment of a few pieces of pipe and a little welding, he fashioned a place to sit while he rolled over the rows, reaching forward to plant then pushing back as he worked. The bench even provides a spot to set a number of plants. The canopy made from scrap plywood gives shade. So if you are tired of the up-and-down and squatting to plant a big garden, perhaps you can adapt this idea for your own big garden.
Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.