Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Peonies: Perennial and Perfect!

The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.
–Henry Mitchell, American writer (1923-93)

Peonies are one of the flowers that I think I have loved forever.  Old fashioned memories come to mind of driving around the countryside in the spring seeing yards with huge hedges or even just a single specimen.  Not many yards were without a plant as they are easy to share.  I've been adding them in nooks and crannies in my yard over the last few years.   My husband's and my second house was on a steep hill with the street below the house.  Previous owners had planted many peonies atop a low wall adjacent to the street so that passers-by could enjoy the blooms.  We built a house (on another hillside as you can't get away from those in WV) over 20 years ago and I am still adding peony plants.   I first had divisions of herbaceous peonies given to me from friends who had been given theirs by their mothers and grandmothers.  Then I saw a tree peony on a House & Garden Tour in the yard of a friend and I was hooked.  I love that tree peonies do not need to be cut back in the fall.  Their branches are very sculptural in the winter.  Now, I am trying woodland peonies; although the one I planted this year met with failure due to our late summer drought and not being able to keep watered while on vacation.

I decided I would like to try seeds.  Seems to go hand in hand with a seed propagating blog.

I ordered 3 different kinds from Cricket Hill Garden, a specialty nursery in CT.  They have a terrific site with a blog that covers every aspect of peonies along with some great videos of how to plant, take care of them and more.  Another wonderful east coast site is Peony's Envy in NJ.  Owner Kathleen Gagan recently visited Kanawha GC and gave a fantastic lecture.  I'm sure there are favorite nurseries that many of you have all over the country.

You can find much more detailed information about the types of peonies on the web sites than I can give. Since this blog is about our group's experiences in starting plants from seeds that's where I'll head.  Take time to read about all the different types and have fun choosing your plants - tough decisions ahead as there are so many colors and types to choose from. 

I purchased three types of seeds.  These had to be ordered early as they are sold out now; so plan for next year if you want to try seeds.  Hopefully I will have lots of babies to share with our members next spring. The seeds I received with the exception of the Woodland Peony are both mixes of many different species and colors.  It will be fun to what comes up!

The first is Paeonia rockii and I received 25 seeds.

Photo from Cricket Hill Garden

The second is Paeonia sufructicosa; a Japanese Tree Peony and I have 15 seeds.

Example of a Japanese Tree Peony bloom
from Cricket Hill Garden

The third variety is the Peony Heaven Woodland and I have 5 of those.

Woodland Peony from Cricket Hill Garden

I followed the indoor stratification method they recommended as I think I will have better luck.  The directions state that the 'simplest way to plant peony seeds is directly in a garden bed with rich, well drained soil.'   "Do not let the pots get dried out."  That's a huge red flag for me as we have had very little rain since early August. My grass is brown and the soil hard as a rock.   Here's a link to their seed starting post, but detailed instructions were included when I received my seeds.

My journal follows here!

October 5, 2016
Stratification according to their instruction controls the moisture and temperature.  I placed the seeds in a large ziplock baggie of damp vermiculite (you may also use coir/coconut fiber or peat).  I sealed the bag, labeled it on the outside and put in a warm place.  The suggested temperature is 80-85 and should be a warm, dark place.  The top of my extra refrigerator is not in a dark place and not warm, so for now they are going in the hall closet.   I'll leave them alone now for 4 weeks before checking for small white roots. 

Small seeds and a bag of vermiculite             
3 baggies tightly sealed, on a tray and
on the closet shelf - dark and warm
January, 2017
Happy New Year!  At last some updates to report.  I wasn't having very good luck in the hall closet, so I moved to a table in my dining room.  The dining room windows are south facing, so I kept them a foot or so away from the window but where it would be warm and brighter light.  I was able to see a few tiny threads through the plastic bag.  I checked the moisture inside and left them alone.
February 9, 2017
A snowy day and I've been thinking about my peony seeds for a while.  Two days ago it was 75 degrees and today it is 25.  Winter storm Niko missed us but it was still a cold day and a good one to stay in and tackle a project.  I looked inside the baggies and feel like my plants have enough roots to proceed to the next step.  I thought maybe due to my growing conditions I was behind, but have decided that I am not.  The instruction sheet said the time spread to reach where my seeds are was 6-12 weeks.  I am closer to 16 weeks, but I have ignored the seed bags for the last several weeks even though I have seen rootlets.  The next step now that there are tiny rootlets growing is to stratify.  Easy enough to move the baggies into the bottom drawer of an extra refrigerator.  I checked for moisture and the vermiculite was still damp; the baggies have droplets of water also on the inside.  Lots of long, skinny rootlets.  The next thing I will look for is to see when the stem shoot appears.  This will take another 10-12 weeks at 40 degrees.  Easy enough! My instructions say "Seeds that have sprouted will have a pale white rootlet and a tiny stem shoot.  I'm in for the long haul on this project.  Another 12 weeks will put my seedlings around the first part of may which is ideal weather here and close to our last frost date.  I should be on time to pot up, get them used to a sunny window and then transition outside. 
The three photos above show the tiny white rootlets, the rootlets as they appear through the wall of the baggie and the three baggies going in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator for stratification.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you can see the rootlet and the seed at the top.  The tiny stem shoot has not yet broken out of the seed which is what needs to happen during stratification. 
It's hard to get the rootlet in focus on this one, but you can get an
idea of how tiny the rootlets are.  Look in the center of the photograph and you will see a
 tiny white thread.  That's the rootlet.
As the seeds were scattered throughout the baggie, you must
be very careful when searching for the seeds as there were 25 seeds initially put in the baggie.
I see at least 10 so I will be happy with that amount.  There are probably more.

April 28, 2017
Our last frost date is usually May 10.  Not so this year.  About mid April the long-range forecast predicted warm temperatures and the forecast was accurate.  It is expected to reach 85 here today.  The coolest night time temperature was last week and dipped into the low 40s.  Today is a gardening day.  Delivering some of this year's W63s (check out that page), spotting some columbine Blue Max and working on the peonies.  I'm having limited success; but I'll take limited.  I pulled the bags from the refrigerator. 

P. rockii has lots of good looking sprouts.  I was able to plant about 10.  Instead of using a 10" pot and planting a lot, I used a smaller pot that I needed to recycle.  I put 4 plants in each.  There are still a few underdeveloped ones in the baggie.  Rather than put it back in the refrigerator I am going to let it dry out slightly in the garage where it is cool and shaded.  My other two bags are fairly disappointing.  They are very wet inside.  There are a few roots in one; the other bag seems to have less than before.  I am afraid that too much moisture may have caused them to rot.  I am not going to put the bags back in the refrigerator as they have had plenty of time to stratify.  I will open them and let them dry out slightly.  Then, I will seal again and keep in a cool but not cold place and hope for some results.  Meanwhile, below are the P. rockii starts.  The directions say to poke a deep hole in the soil and insert the entire plant, root end down.  Cover the top with 1" of soil.

The left photo shows the size in comparison with my Sharpie.
The right photo is a close up of the roots, the seed pod still attached with the stem shoot

Two pots of 4 sprouts each are on my front porch

May 13, 2017
Benign neglect! That was the phrase used by one of our members on a post the first year we started the blog.  The term is perfect for my peonies.  In the last post I told you about my disappointment with the two other types of peony seeds that I planted and that I put them aside for a while to hopefully dry out.  Today, I pulled the woodland peony seeds out to check on them.  They have been inside a slightly opened Ziploc baggie in my warm garage.  The baggie was also inside a black plastic pot and so they did not get much light.  To my delight, there are several sprouts showing!  Today wasn't the day to start potting as it has been rainy and cool and not a day for that project.  So, I placed the baggie back in the pot and will wait a while longer.  These still need to grow a little more anyway before the next step, but I am encouraged.  Not much happening in the P. sufructicosa bag.  Will keep you advised. 
At least 2 nice sprouts are visible.  There are a few more
buried in the vermiculite.

May 28, 2017   The P. rockii sprouts potted on the 13th are slow.  Just one has emerged from the pot and is very tiny.  I am keeping it on the front porch in a sheltered location and hoping for more.  I checked on the woodland peony seeds that I left in the baggie in my garage (semi light and warm) and two have emerged.  I took those out of the bag and potted together in one separte pot and added to the front porch with the two P. rockii pots. 

Woodland Peony

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's All About the Fluff....and the Bugs..and Collecting the Seeds

This post is all about milkweed!  And all the things I didn't know until this year about what comes along with the milkweeds besides just the monarchs.

If you have been reading our blog you know that last year we attempted starting from seed several varieties of milkweed native to our zone to share with our membership.  Last June, lots of pots of baby milkweed plants went home with members.  Some planted theirs directly into the ground; some (like me) kept theirs in pots all summer and covered with mulch through the winter.  Those that planted theirs directly into the ground seemed to have the best luck.  Their plants grew, survived a fairly cold winter and flourished this year; blooming and now developing pods and going to seed.  Several photos of those are on the other individual milkweed posts in this blog.   A large percentage of mine survived, but are still very small.  I also found that the ones in pots were VERY slow breaking dormancy.  In fact I had given up on some, but fortunately did not throw out the pots,  In mid June several of the remaining ones that looked dead finally burst forth.  Moral of the story:  don't give up on them.  Ever!  You just never know.  I will put them into the ground soon.  We have had a very hot, humid, rainy summer here which they should like a lot.

My prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) that I purchased and put in last year from seedlings took off this year.  They grew to be 5'-6' tall and bloomed in late June/July.  Seed pods developed and I am now collecting seed to send to Shirley Meniece. 

But first - THE BUGS!  I learned last year from my few plants that aphids and milkweed bugs are also attracted to milkweeds.  This year the plants are covered with them. has some suggestions about what to do with heavy infestations of aphids.  Milkweed bugs are a different story and I've visited several sites to get more information.  The 'bad' bug sites all encourage insecticide spraying to control - but why would I do that!  One blog says get rid of them, one blog says they are OK.  Missouri Botanical Garden has a posting.   A Galveston, TX master gardener/extension blogger at TexasAM Extension considers them beneficial.  One last site that I enjoyed is the Stewardship Garden. 

So, you will have to decide on your own.  Since I do not yet have eggs on my leaves, I think I will hit them with some sprays of water and maybe the detergent/water spray.  They have not spread to any adjacent plants.  In fact, when I collect the pods and scrape out the seeds the bugs seem to come from within the pods.  I did have a few of the bugs last year and am not too worried, except that they are very numerous this year. 


Aphids, small and large milkweed bugs.

 On to the pods - my pods are splitting open and I need to collect.  Many of them are all the way open and seeds already heading off in the wind. 

I've collected loads of pods to share at Shirley Meniece and with our members.  Here's what I have learned!

Gathering the seeds.  It's best to collect either when they are just about to open or slightly open.  It's a lot easier to separate the seeds from the fluff which is actually called floss.  Did you know that the floss was collected during WWII and used in life jackets and is still used today in pillows? (Washington Post 2012 article) . I tried a few yesterday inside and my 1 year old puppy had a ball.  The ones I tried to get seeds from were fully open, very dry and very fluffy and within a few seconds the floss was floating across the countertops, catching on to my clothes AND provided great entertainment for him to jump and catch.  Last year he attacked and ate the butterflies, this year only the floss so we are making progress.

Ziggy loves the floss!  A great game for him.

This was going to take forever to separate the seeds from the floss so I turned to Google.  Several options were offered. The most popular seemed to be putting into a brown bag, adding a few coins and shaking.  I tried that but it only partially worked and many of the seeds seemed damaged by the heavy coins.  So, I elected to try another way.

Another options was getting the pods a little earlier in their development, holding tight to the floss and just pulling down in the direction that the seeds were facing.  This worked well and I cleaned a dozen pods in a few minutes.  Photos are below.  The technique that worked the best though was purely accidental.  I went out this morning to recreate the "fluffy dog scene" and picked a few pods that were almost all the way open with floss sticking out.  We had a lot of rain last night and the pods were still damp.  I took them inside, opened them and expected them to explode with floss everywhere.  The floss was still damp though and stuck together; the seeds pulled right off in a second.  No mess!  So, accidental learning sometimes works the best.  The seeds are now drying on the counter and I will package after they have thoroughly dried out.

Remember to store your seeds in a cool place in a paper envelope or bag; not plastic baggies.  A refrigerator will do; but not the freezer. And for tips on propagating refer back to our milkweed propagation page. Remember these seeds need stratification and the coffee filter method suggested to us by Prairie Moon Nursery was great!

I hope you will share with us some of your seed collecting experiences!  The monarchs have not arrived here yet as it is early and I am expecting to see some by September 1.  I was in Greenbrier County, WV a week ago though and a few monarchs were already appearing and lots of eggs on the underside of the leaves.   Check your garden and let us know.

My collection of pods in various stages.

I am holding this one by the stem end with the tip to the right.
See how the seeds are facing my fingers - you want to turn the pod the
other direction to easily detach the seeds from the floss.

Holding now by tip end, with stem end facing down.
See how the seeds now point down toward the white paper I am using
to collect my seeds on.

Close up showing seed direction.

Pull in direction of A to B.
Seeds and floss are still slightly damp which will prevent
the floss from scattering everywhere.  I will leave the seeds on a
paper towel to completely dry out before packaging.
Seeds should be stored in a cool place such as a refrigerator, but
not in the freezer.
 Look at all the seeds gathered from the pods in less than 5 minutes using this method.

This is a LOT of seeds from a few pods.
Ready to go in the seed share envelopes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Soil Blocking: We're Game to Try a New Method!

Last fall Kathy M. came back from a Zone VII GCA Meeting in Virginia Beach.   Kathy is always enthusiastic and eager to try new things  She RAVED about hearing Lisa Ziegler, one of the keynote speakers.   
Lisa's career is her garden.  She started by selling cut flowers to local florists and to Colonial Williamsburg. Her business expanded and soon included Farmer’s Markets, a garden share program and a subscription service.  She also started speaking to various gardening groups including garden clubs, master gardeners and others.  Lisa's Story can be found here.  Kathy says what blew her away and what she loves about Lisa is her infectious "can-do attitude" and her "over the top information."
Kathy's seed starter kit.
Kathy came back to Charleston with the Soil Blocking Starter Kit that she purchased through Lisa at The Gardener's Workshop and couldn't wait until spring to star her new found knowledge.  
Bottom of blocker - see all the tiny squares
that will make the planting 'blocks.'
Kathy's positive comments about the method include:
  • Fast emergence
  • Quick to be able to transplant
  • Cuts the growing time in half 
  • Can have blooms the entire season
  • It's all about the timing
Kathy gave two of us a brief demo in early spring.  She brought trays of annuals, herbs and perennials that she had started on April 5.  We ordered a few additional trays and soil to share.  Mary, Kathy and Tori then had a follow up session where they started seeds using the method. 
Below are photos and comments on their experiences.

Kathy started with lots of seeds.  She managed to get them through the germination stage, but then left for a few days and they lacked water.  A few lettuce, tomato and basil plants survived and are now doing great.  Soon to be eaten tomatoes!
Mary writes that she, Tori and Kathy had a small workshop on May 11.  She tried some seeds let from a Shirley Meniece conference as well as the Texas Bird Pepper that has a post all of its own.  She used a heating pad and also enclosed in some zip lock baggies to try to prevent the trays from drying out while she left town for a few days. 



Mary reports on June 15, 2016 that her trays have been under full light 24/7 and now coming out of the baggies. There was some loss due to mold inside the bag, but lots of survivors.  She is growing crocosmia and Texas bird peppers as you can see written on the side of the tray.



Tori adds: "

Menta spicata
I started several types of seeds using the block method 5/11/2016. I wanted some plants for my own yard, so used Digitalis purpurea f. Albiflora, white fox glove Thalictrum rochebruneanum, Meadow Rue and Mentha Spicata spearmint."  She did use a heating pad underneath and raised up close to the lights. 

Unfortunately, vacation interrupted and she lost what she started.

I'd like to post some information from Lisa.  I emailed her this morning with a few questions and asked permission to use her information sheet "Seed Starting with Soil Blocks."  (I can't upload .pdf's to the blog, so have saved it as a .jpg and it appears at the bottom of this post.)  She replied immediately with the following great answers to my questions about watering and legginess.  So, if you wind up trying this method and purchasing things from her, I know you will have great responses from her to anything you need to know! 

  • Watering; blocks should dry out between daily waterings. Best case is that the growing area is warm, so the blocks are dry each morning to be water. This is encourages strong root growth and just good growing conditions. Drying out also helps to eliminate disease problems--fungus such as damping off, algae, etc. all associate with cool, wet soil. Here is a link to  a video showing how I water, scroll to the 2nd video: 
  • We do not cover our trays with domes because that is a perfect growing environment for disease and other undesirables.
  • Leggy plants are result of low light. For plants to remain short, stocky and beautifully green they need 16 hours of light a day. A grow light placed inches above the seedlings on for 16 hours a day grows very healthy transplants. See photo attached of 3-5" seedlings ready to go to the garden.
  • Size to plant; our goal to have a 3-5 inch seedling to plant in the garden. This can take 2-5 weeks depending on the variety and growing conditions provided (zinnias 2 weeks, tomatoes 4 weeks, cockscomb 4 weeks, etc.) 
  • Soil blocks provide such an amazingly healthy environment to grow in plants grow faster without restrictions. You can count on cutting 1/3 of the growing time off other methods. It's all about timing and not starting to early so the plants are left in blocks to long.
  • A link to Frequently Asked Questions about Soil Blocking:
Giant marigolds ready to go into the garden

Lisa's web site is terrific - take the time to browse the many different pages and look at the photographs of her gardens!  In addition to the tips she sent two photos of her blocks.

14 Week Old Cockscomb Peach


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Pollinators In Peril: Our Pollinator Projects

Last year our club tackled the GCA's Pollinators in Peril challenge in several different ways.

We worked through our Hort Committee and propagated several varieties of milkweeds.  You may read about these by browsing the 2015 posts on milkweeds.  A new post from May 27 titled 'May and our Milkweeds' gives updates on this project.  We will continually update this post throughout the summer and post comments that will be sent to those of you who follow our blog.  If you have not subscribed to get our updates, just scroll to the bottom of any of our pages and submit your email address to follow. 
In addition to the seed propagation a few of us planted milkweed plants also obtained from Prairie Moon Nursery.  We ordered flats of 38 plants and put in our gardens in the spring of 2015.  As these were young plants, many did not flower.  They did, however, bring caterpillars.  I have about a dozen plants and had close to two dozen caterpillars.  We brought one caterpillar inside, put in a container with a screen on the top and within 24 hours the chyrsallis formed and then emerged a few weeks later.  Another friend, Lynn,  had great success.  This year those plants are flourishing. Milkweeds are slow to break dormancy here.  Daily checks finally showed tiny red sprouts breaking through.  The plants have grown rapidly and some are now over two feet tall in my yard.  They are producing blooms already so we are anticipating many more monarchs this fall. 

Lynn's plants spring of 2016 - great growth and bloom!

Lynn May 11
Lynn May 23

Lynn May 27 in bloom!

Sara's plants and monarch from fall 2015!

Lots of caterpillars on one tiny plant.
How many can you see?
Caterpillar just about
the right size to bring in.
Within 24 hours the chrysalis formed.
Chrysallis was given to Anna to
babysit while I was on vacation.
Close to emerging.

Photograph by Anna Forbes
 Our third Pollinator Project involved a partnership with The Carriage Trail.  The trail is described below and is a tremendously popular walking trail.  It is listed as a National Recreational Trail.
"The Sunrise Carriage Trail gently zigzags 0.65 mile and descends 180 feet from the Sunrise Mansion located at 746 Myrtle Road to Justice Row, which is adjacent to the south end of the Southside Bridge. The Trail property is a peaceful and varied landscape of towering trees, wildflowers, ornamental plantings, and historic masonry remains. The Carriage Trail was originally constructed in approximately 1905 by former Governor William A. MacCorkle for the use of oxen-drawn wagons carrying massive stone building materials for the Mansion. Later, Governor MacCorkle used the Trail for his horse-drawn carriage"
An add-on to the trail was the acquisition of Justice Row made possible by a gift from the Hess brothers.  Justice Row was formerly a short spur road with several very small buildings that served originally as offices for local Justices of the Peace.  These were demolished many years ago and the property was acquired and added on to the trail.  At the end of the property there is a small parking area and just beyond that an area approximately 15x15 that receives enough daily sun to host a monarch garden.  In the fall of 2015, our Conservation Committee proposed the establishment of a Monarch Garden.  Accepted by both our board and The Carriage Trail, trays of plants of three varieties of milkweeds were reserved through Prairie Moon.  We ordered Asclepias sullivantii, Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias tuberosa.  We received our plants in May, 2016 and on June 1 members of our Conservation Committee as well as members of The Carriage Trail installed the plants.  Future plans include signage explaining the importance of milkweeds in the life cycle of monarchs and the establishment of a Monarch Waystation.

Newly planted site June 2016
Site in summer 2015.
Approximately 15x15 with lots of
sun.  The site was cleared and prepared
with help from The Carriage Trail and
the City of Charleston.

Carriage Trail and Kanawha GC
members after planting.

Popping the plants out of trays and placing
on the site.

Carriage Trail & City of Charleston
with the watering truck.
An additional tray of plants was provided to the City of Charleston Stormwater Department and planted in a dry creek bed educational project in downtown Charleston.