Archive for the ‘General Garden Care’ Category

This time last year I wrote about the unprecedented warm warm weather we were experiencing here in northwestern CT. This fall has been much more typical weather here at Cricket Hill Garden. To date, we have has several nights in the mid-to-low 20s as well as two days of snow. The ground remained workable and this has allowed us to finish up all of our fall planting. Below is a quick photo journal of some of our fall projects.

hoop house

Potted tree peonies tucked away for the winter in our hoop house. We got the plastic on just in time, it snowed the day after!


Even as much of the garden has settled into earthy tones of brown, this tree peony bed with a living mulch of Dutch white clover remains brilliantly green. We were very pleased with how this cover worked as a weed suppressant and plan on inter-planting it in more display garden beds next spring.

leaf mulch

This new tree peony bed has been mulched with 4 inches of leaves for the winter. In the very early spring, we will move it away from the base of the peonies.


Our preference of ‘leaving’ the leaves on a garden bed as much as possible enriches the soil, protects the plants, and also provides a favorable winter environment for these self-seeded giant red mustards. These turn fiery after the frost and make a healthy and powerful addition to stir fries.

seedling beds

These two newly planted raised beds are full of some of our own test tree peonies. Many of these young plants will bloom for the first time next spring. Needless to say, we are very excited to see what they look like.


If there are any old leaves lingering on your tree or herbaceous peonies, these should be cleaned up. We do not like to let these stay in the garden. Fungal spores can overwinter and colonize in the soil around the plant, potentially causing harm in the spring. We obviously still have some work to do before we retire for a few months of reading in front of the wood stove.

tp filed

Our newly rearranged and replanted production field.


We are very excited about this seemingly lifeless twig! It is one of eighty Chinese persimmons (Diospyros kaki) we were able to import this fall. Altogether we will be testing ten varieties of cold hardy persimmons which have intriguing names like “Ox Heart” and “Millstone.” These plants need to be grown under quarantine for two years and it may be longer still before we are able to properly evaluate their suitability to our region. In the future, we hope to make some of these varieties available for sale.

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Winter can be trying on peonies, particularly for the newly planted, less-than-ideally sited or poorly mulched. Flower buds can withstand sub-zero temperatures, but the continued freezing and thawing of more mild winters can result in what is known as heaving. This term refers to the resulting force of a layer of ice forming beneath the surface of the soil. The expansion of this ice pushes a layer of soil upwards. The cumulative effects of this process can be quite pronounced, particularly after a like the one we experienced this year with many periods of freezing and thawing. Its frost heaving which is responsible for delivering us a fresh crop of ‘Connecticut potatoes’ each spring, as rocks come up to the surface. So as you begin your spring clean up, inspect your peonies for signs of heaving.

Peony roots that are not firmly set in the ground or which are in wetter soils are particularly susceptible. This poor plant is in both wet soil and did not have its roots insulated by a layer of mulch. Mulch insulates the soil and can help to prevent heaving. Roots like these, exposed by frost heaving will not survive and will severally weaken a plant.

Exposed roots can desiccate, which can be deadly for young tree and herbaceous peonies, and all plants.

The best solution is to generously mound soil around the exposed roots and tamp it down firmly, but gently with your foot. Do this now in the early spring before any exposed roots wither.

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We have been very busy the last few weeks shipping out peonies all over the country and even to western Europe. Its been very gratifying to see how well many of the plants grew this year. Its a great pleasure for us to send out such high quality plants which we know will thrive in our customers gardens. After quitting for day, we took a camera for a quick tour of the garden in fall. We hope you enjoy.

‘Snow Lotus’ specimen still nicely holding it’s foliage. We have not seen much interesting fall color on tree peonies this year, likely due to the excessive rain we received in the late summer.

Other tree peonies, particularly some of the P. rockii related cultivars have gone totally dormant and lost all of their leaves.

The last of the tomatoes, some will still ripen, while the green ones are perfect for pickles.

In the vegetable garden the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are still growing strong and offer some very vibrant color in addition to peppery deliciousness.

Smooth luffa (Luffa aegyptiaca), almost ready to be harvested and dried for use as a sponge. This vine provides us with a delicious addition to stirfry when young.

Just as my eyes were drawn to it’s blazing color amid a fading garden, the mason bees feast on a last bit of nectar on this dahlia.

A second crop of mustard greens came up from self-seeded from plants originally planted this past spring.

Grown as a beautiful ornamental, the large, purple-cast leaves of the castor bean (Ricinus communis) belie the toxicity of this plant. There is enough ricin here to take care of many, many Bulgarian dissidents.

Another deadly beauty Monkshood (Aconitum spp). In the background, our native spice bush Lindera benzoin lights the swamp with a vibrant yellow. Lindera benzoin was an important medicinal plant for Native Americans, it was used as a “blood purifier” and for treating colds, rheumatism and anemia.

Herbaceous peony seed sprouted, direct planted outside in late August.

Tree peony seed sprouted, direct planted outside in late August. The tree peony seeds we have inside in damp sand are also beginning to sprout.

David (in Colonel Saito voice): “Be happy at your work.”

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Summer, in between the sowing and the reaping is a time for growing. These long, hot days can be idled away waiting for the tomatoes to ripen, or even, heaven for-fend at something so decadent as a day at the beach!  At Cricket Hill we spend the dog days of summer opening up new lands and renovating the older parts of the garden. We plan on planting peonies in these new beds, but also more vegetables and fruit trees.

Tilling up some new areas in our nursery field. It wants to be a hay field, but we have other ideas…

After removing as many of the weed roots and rocks as we can, we will augment the new beds with calcitic lime to raise the pH and Azomite to increase the level of micro-nutrients in the soil. We will then cover the bare areas with black plastic to prevent photosynthesis from occurring. The sun-starved meadow grass can then be raked before planting. Hopefully a good layer of mulch will also help keep the grass under control next year.

We harvested a fine crop of ‘Connecticut Potatoes’ from the field.

Some of our more delectable Connecticut potatoes, these are good for more than rock soup.

We are putting this new bed in an area that has a tendency to flood in the spring, so we need to make it raised. Lucky there is no dearth of stones for the new wall. Because of its proximity to a creek, the soil here is exceptionally rich, and altogether different from our usual sand and rock.

Digging out the stones from one area provide the building materials for this wall. Because of the heavy rains we receive in the spring, we always seek to plant our peonies in raised beds.

We hope that you enjoy these glorious days of summer, whether you are lugging around boulders or even lounging at the beach!

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Over the last several weeks our weather has alternated between lots of rain and lots of sun. The tomatoes and broccoli are all growing like gangbusters, but so are the weeds. While we like to add as many of the “weeds” to our salads and saute as possible, there is simply too much chickweed and lambs quarters for even the most dedicated wildcrafter to munch. Aside from these more tasty “weeds,” we and the peonies are also vexed by less appetizing plants like wild morning glories and jewel weed. For these noxious plants the only solution is to yank them out before they smother out peonies or other purposefully planted members of the garden. While weeding a garden bed is an opportunity to meditate, when you have over-grown acres, sooner or later you will realize the truth that life if too short to spend it weeding.

An un-mulched bed: “Fine crop of weeds you got there, don’t know about the peonies though….”

There is another way, and we are not talking about Roundup or Preen. Products like these will poison you and pollute your ecosystem. Independent studies at universities here and in Europe site Roundup as lethal to amphibians and causes cellular disruption in humans. In our garden/nursery, we have always refused to use products like these. Just read the Preen warning label if you don’t believe us.

A good layer of mulch, applied early in the season does a fantastic job of smothering out almost all unwanted plants in the garden. Using organic material as mulch also helps to retain moisture in the soil during the hottest days of summer. The classic method used by organic gardeners is to first put down a layer of newspaper (at least three sheets thick) or cardboard and then some kind of organic material such as leaves, straw, mulch hay or grass clippings. As these layers of organic material break down, it will add a fine layer of compost to your soil. A new layer of cardboard will need to be added every two years for sustained weed smothering.

Well mulched and nary a weed to be seen, a sight that gladdens the apollonian side of all gardeners.

There are a few issues to be aware using the classic lasagna method. If you put down your mulch early in the spring, be aware of where your perennials or self-seeding annuals will come up so as not to smother them. Oak leaves make a fine top-dressing but will acidify the soil as they decompose. If you wish to counteract this effect, sprinkle lime on your garden bed before applying the mulch. When mulching your peonies or other perennials, its important to leave the soil around the drip-line of the plant free of mulch, this ensures that there is not excess moisture which can cause fungus to grow on your plants.

This bed was mulched with cardboard and leaves in April, to date we have had to pull only a handful of jewel weed.

A new bed constructed last year, planted with new P. rockii hybrids. With young plants, it is particularly important to keep the area around them free of weeds.

Here we used mulch hay on top of several sheets of newspaper.

After mulching, you can plant annuals in the space between your perennials. Here we have mustard greens interplanted with our young tree peonies.

We also interplanted with some delicious speckled trout lettuce.

Another interesting option for covering the space in between your permanent plantings is to use a living mulch.

We have had a variety of creeping sedum in the garden for years. It forms a thick mat with tiny yellow flowers by early summer and does a good job of smothering other weeds. If it gets too close to the peonies, its easy to pull out and replant in another area of the garden.

This year we began using low growing Dutch white clover as a living mulch. So far we have been very pleased with the results. It is dense and keeps most other weeds from growing through. The ones that do, are easy to pull out. The advantage of clover is that it fixes nitrogen, enriching and improving the soil.

A new bed which we seeded with Dutch white clover in early April. Note how we have pulled it away from the base of the peonies.

We plan on seeding more beds with clover this summer. This white clover is a biannual, and we will not need to re-seed next spring. It remains to be seen whether it will self-seed or if we will need to re-seed ourselves.

We would love to hear about your mulching methods, as any gardener knows “life is too short to spend it weeding!”

With all of your garden well mulched, you, like Buster, may be at a loss about what to do with all the spare time.

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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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