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Archive for March, 2011

As you may remember, last year we had an exceptionally warm spring in New England. In 2010, our tree peony bloom was the earliest we have ever had, with the peak around May 10th. March 2010 was very warm and April was downright hot, with a streak of three days in the 90s. This time last year the tree peonies already had well advanced growth.

This photo was taken on March 27th, 2010. This plant was in a container grown in a protected spot near the house. It’s growth was more advanced than tree peonies planted in the field. Nonetheless it was quite remarkable to have a plant in such an advanced state of growth at such an early date. This much growth is more typical of mid-to-late April for us.

Last year the flowers were much smaller than average because the buds did not have a long, cool April to fatten up and were instead forced open too early. We are hoping, probably in vain, that the weather will be a little less extreme this season.

This picture was taken this afternoon. This is a tree peony in a container and the buds are just starting to break their calyx. Tree peonies planted out in the field are at approximately the same stage of development.

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We generally leave a few inches of stem in the fall so its easy to find our herbaceous peonies in the spring even when they are covered with mulch and the eyes are just beginning to peak through.

Uncovered, and coming up nicely.

A blend fertilizers and soil amendments for successful peony growing.

At Cricket Hill Garden we use these three soil amendments in combination around all of our peonies in the spring. We use the lime to raise the pH of the soil. Our natural pH is around 5.5, but with regular application of lime we have succeeded in raising it to around 6.5, the minimum threshold for good peony growth. We like to use calcitic lime because it contains a much higher percentage of calcium than regular garden lime. Calcium is a vital mineral to have in the soil; it helps the plants to form strong cell walls which are naturally more resistant to stress and disease. Calcitic lime also contains very little magnesium. Too much magnesium in the soil can render certain nutrients present in the soil unavailable to plants. Azomite, a crushed volcanic rock powder, contains 70 different minerals and trace elements. These micro-nutrients help facilitate healthy plant growth. We have found to be an excellent supplement for our peonies, other perennials as well as in the vegetable garden. Finally, we add a handful of low nitrogen fertilizer to the drip line of the peonies. We like to use North Country Organics Prostart. It is blend of greensand, bone char, sulfate of potash, non-Chilean nitrate, vegetable protein meal and animal protein meal such as feather meal. Again, this fertilizer is also very good for giving seedling transplants in the vegetable garden an extra boost of energy. Another good organic fertilizer to use would be Espona Bulb-tone (3-5-3).

Mixture of lime, azomite and fertilizer is spread around the the drip line of the plant.

The soil amendments are lightly worked into the ground.

This final step of ‘scratching’ the soil amendments and fertilizer into the ground is very important. If simply left on the surface, they will cake and not break down into the soil as quickly.

In a week or so we will begin fertilizing the peonies with Neptune’s Harvest and also begin spraying with the organic fungicide Actinovate, so check back soon for a post on that.

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Though we had a cold, wet inch of snow today, its safe to say that spring has finally arrived at Cricket Hill. Several male mallard ducks are jousting for the attention of a single female in the pond, and the tender emerald shoots of garlic are pushing up through the mulch.

This male mallard chased away three competing suitors

Garlic! I can taste the scapes already!

The tree peony buds are swelled and some of the early varieties of herbaceous peonies have their red eyes peeking out from the soil.

The buds of the later varieties of tree peonies have yet to break their calyx.

The early herbaceous variety ‘Coral Charm’ shows itself, the first herbaceous peony up this year!

With the blooming of the crocuses this past weekend it was time to uncover our tree peony graft beds. We uncovered several small beds containing a few hundred grafts. Because this week promises more wet and cold weather we have decided to wait on our main beds until things dry out this weekend. Last fall we grafted over 1000 tree peonies. I’m hoping for an overall success rate of around 80%. For our 2009 tree peony grafts our overall success rate was only 54%, but low number was the result of the total failure of a few varieties.

In 2010, we mostly used scions with nice fat primary buds. My preferred understock is 2 year-old herbaceous peony seedlings. After planting the grafts in August-September, I covered the beds with straw. Then in December I mulched with clear plastic and wood chips. No rodent damage was evident when I uncovered them.

Here is a graft a few days ago. Beginning to grow already!

And today, little peony babies in the snow.

It’s also time to uncover our seed bags. So much life!

Northwest Cultivar Group (P. rockii) planted last September.

Experiment in Spring Grafting

When the snow began to melt two weeks ago, we found that many of our most prized specimen tree peonies had suffered extensive winter damage. Many of our customers have reported the same. If you had a branch break on your tree peony, you should snip it off and allow the plant to heal. If there are other undamaged flower buds, these will received more energy and produce larger flowers this year. As long as the plant has a solid root system it will send up new growth this season to compensate for any that was lost this winter.

In addition to snow damage, for the first time in our two decades of growing tree peonies, some of our older specimen plants planted near stone walls were girdled by rodents. They totally gnawed off the cambium layer of the trunks, going up over 2′ in some cases. Aside for giving our cat an unlimited mandate to “disappear” as many mice and chipmonks as he can get his claws around, there was little we could do. With a heavy heart we cut down some of our most prized tree peonies.

This ‘Color of Eternity’ was over 15 years old and loaded every year with dozens of flowers.

This is was the little monsters did to it over the winter. I guess to be fair to them, they had no idea of knowing it was going to be such a harsh winter and only resorted to the peony bark as a famine food.

The branch is dead with the cambium layer so thoroughly stripped off.

I had to cut this plant almost totally to the ground, luckily I know it has a good strong root system and that it will be more beautiful than ever in a few years.

I spent a few days in merciless pruning of damaged branches, however I just could not bring myself to throw out all of that nice grafting material.

I collected these scions from damaged tree peonies as soon as the snow melted, hopefully preventing them from desiccating.

Tree peonies are traditionally grafted in the late summer and early fall, when the new growth has yet to turn woody and there is an ample supply of herbaceous roots available for use as understock. But, since I have good looking scion wood which would otherwise go into the compost why not try it in the spring?

The main issue seems to be that the cambium layer is very thin on last year’s growth as it is almost totally woody. However, some varieties seem more promising in this regard than others.

Cambium layer still looks pretty thick here.

Another issue is that I do not have a quantity of good herbaceous roots around now. What I was able to scrounge are small, so even if these grafts take, they will not be as vigorous as one done on herbaceous seedling roots.

Finished grafts.

I used hemp twine to tie them up, I have used jute in the past and it worked well. The advanatge of twine is that it will break down over the course of a year, unlike a rubber band.

I set the grafts in slightly damp sand at 90 degrees to heal. I will check them in five to seven days.

Transforming broken stems into new peony babies?????

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