I will be moving in January and I’m sad at the thought of leaving all my beautiful perennials behind. The ground here in Zone 5 will be too frozen to dig in January, but I can’t return next spring to dig them either. Can I put them in pots this fall?
That’s a great plan. You can dig divisions of your favorite perennials in late summer or early fall and pot them in plastic nursery pots. If you are paying a moving company to transport your possessions, keep in mind that you’ll probably be charged by weight; smaller divisions in small, lightweight pots will save moving fees. Some movers refuse to transport plants at all, so check the fine print of your contract.
Getting the plants through a cold winter in pots will be the tricky part. Leave the potted perennials outdoors as the weather cools in fall, allowing them to gradually go dormant. If you anticipate the soil may freeze before your moving date, cluster the pots together outdoors and insulate over and around them with loose mulch such as straw or evergreen boughs, then cover them with a tarp. Or keep the pots in an unheated garage. Once the soil in the pots freezes, it’s best that it stay frozen and not alternate between frozen and thawed.
After the pots have arrived at your new home, continue to keep the plants chilled and dormant until spring planting season. —Doug Hall
Last week you recommended burying kitchen scraps to let them compost directly in the soil. But I have seen raccoons in my neighborhood. What if they dig up my garden to get at the compost?
Whether you compost aboveground or below, animals may be attracted by the smell of the composting scraps and dig into the pile in search of something edible. Fences will keep out neighborhood dogs but they aren’t much help when it comes to excluding other digging or burrowing animals, such as rats, field mice, and raccoons.
Some manufactured composting bins and tumblers are designed to be critter-proof, with solid sides and tight-fitting lids. Homemade compost bins can be lined with wire mesh or hardware cloth. When pit composting, bury the compostables under several inches of soil. This makes it less likely that marauding animals will smell food and dig.
Don’t add meat or dairy products to your compost pile. If the problem with unwanted wildlife persists, eliminate kitchen scraps entirely and compost only yard wastes—things that won’t interest raccoons, like leaves, grass clippings, shrub prunings, and weeds. —Doug Hall
I want to recycle my kitchen scraps in the garden but I have no room in my back yard for a compost pile. What’s a good way to compost that doesn’t take much space?
Dig a hole, dump in your compostable kitchen waste, and cover it with soil. Most of the scraps break down in a month or less (things like melon rinds and eggshells might take longer), and during that time you don’t have to worry about the temperature or moisture level of the decomposing organic waste, nor do you need to stir or turn the materials. Soil microbes and earthworms do all the work for you.
This technique, called pit composting, is especially good in vegetable gardens, because you can bury your scraps between rows or wherever a crop has just been harvested. The nutrients from the decomposing organic materials are released slowly to the soil and are available for crops that follow. As with aboveground compost piles, you should avoid adding meat or dairy wastes, which can attract animals. Pit composting is difficult for large amounts of yard debris, but it’s a good way to deal with the day’s coffee grounds, potato peelings, apple cores, and other food wastes. —Doug Hall
I inherited several peony clumps from my grandmother, who had an amazing garden. In my yard they refuse to bloom. What am I doing wrong?
Peonies that thrive and flower in cemeteries and abandoned farmsteads, without any special care, attest to the sturdiness of this tough perennial. They’ll bloom in any good garden soil—so long as they get enough sun. The American Peony Society recommends planting peonies where they receive 8 to 10 hours of sunlight daily. In a shaded location, peonies produce leaves but no flowers.
A mistake that some gardeners make is to cut back peony foliage too early in the growing season. The purpose of leaves is to photosynthesize: to capture solar energy and transform it to a storable form to be used later by the plant. In peonies, the carbohydrates produced via photosynthesis are stored in the tuberous roots, then used the following spring to produce flowers. If the foliage is removed in spring or summer, photosynthesis comes to a halt and subsequent flowering suffers. Instead, wait until frost has browned the foliage in fall to cut it back.
If your peonies need more sun, move them in late summer or early fall. Divide the clumps at the same time, if you wish. Replant shallowly, with the pink growth buds or “eyes” no more than one inch below the soil surface. Deep planting is another reason some peonies fail to bloom. —Doug Hall
When is the best time to plant garlic?
In most parts of the United States, garlic is planted in fall—about 6 weeks before the average date of the first fall frost in your area. Southern gardeners also have the option of planting in late winter.
Because garlic sold in grocery stores has often been treated with chemicals to inhibit sprouting, purchase untreated garlic from a farmers’ market, garden center, or mail-order retailer. Separate the garlic bulbs into individual cloves, then plant them 2 or 3 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Add a few inches of loose straw as a winter mulch. The cloves will likely send up tentative green shoots in fall, then go dormant with cold weather. Growth reappears in full force with the warmth of spring. The garlic will be ready to harvest next summer when the foliage yellows and topples over.
There are two basic types of garlic: softneck, the typical grocery-store garlic that stores well and is favored by Southern growers; and hardneck, which offers larger cloves that are easier to peel and edible “scapes,” or flowering stalks. —Doug Hall