Master Gardeners Talk Gardening with Kids and Beautiful Peonies

Gardening with Kids

Spring is in the air, and gardeners are getting the itch to grab their trowels and start digging.  And if you think adults are going stir crazy from being inside all winter, you know that kids are bouncing off the walls.  But how can you entice the younger generation to put down their Xbox controllers and join you?  Here are three simple tips to follow.

Tip #1 – Make it fun.  Do you like weeding?  I don’t particularly.  Although it can be satisfying, weeding can be boring, not to mention hard work.  So unless you want to hear the kids start to grumble real fast, start with a different garden project.  First things first, get prepared.  Begin by donning your garden gear and letting the kids play “dress up” as well. Get them their own aprons, little garden gloves and kid-size tools to use.  plantinhands

Tip #2 – Keep it simple.  How many times have you bitten off more than you can chew in a day’s gardening?  We all start with so much energy, and often flag before we anticipate.  Couple that with kids’ short attention spans, and you’ll lose your audience before you get far at all.  Keep their interest by keeping the garden project simple.  Instead of having them help plant the entire vegetable garden, start simple.  Try to involve them in the entire process though: going to the nursery, purchasing the seeds or starters, preparing the soil, planting, watering, etc.  Give them a manageable project and they won’t get overwhelmed or discouraged.

Tip #3 – Give them credit.  Everyone loves to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Little people are no different.  When it comes time for harvesting those carrots, show them how to do it and let them have the pleasure of pulling them up from the ground.  Praise them on what a good job they have done.  Make a salad together.  Let them serve it on the table.  Agree how good it tastes and how proud you are of them for growing food for the family.  If flowers are your thing, do the same – go together to the cutting garden, and making sure they handle the clippers safely, allow them to choose which flowers to cut.  If they’re too small to handle clippers, let them point to the flower they want, and you do the cutting.  Help them arrange them in a vase, and don’t be too picky about how it comes together.  Put the vase in a place of honor, and say they are the prettiest flowers you’ve ever seen – and of course they will be.

Just being outdoors in your yard or garden, whether you’re growing food or creating beautiful landscapes, is a good prescription for adults and children alike.

Plants We Love: Peonies

I had always thought peonies (Paeonia) were too exotic to be in my garden, too hard to care for, finicky like roses. I was wrong on all counts.

Many years ago we bought a house with something planted along the driveway fence, but since it was December I had no idea what would emerge inpeony spring. To my delight, and horror, lovely burgundy foliage poked up, unfolded into beautiful, long, tapered green leaves, followed by large, ruffled magenta blooms. I scrambled to learn all I could about peony care only to find out that they’re best left alone.

I inherited plants with magenta blooms (probably P. lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’), but they come in a variety of colors from dark red to white, yellow and coral; single petals or fully double. A herbaceous perennial (a plant whose leaves and stems die back at the end of the growing season), P. lactiflora and P. officinalis – the most common landscape species – grow 18-28 inches tall, are fairly disease resistant, and best of all, they’re not on the deer and rabbit menu. I should note here that there are three other peony species: tree peony (P. suffruticosa) – taller plant on a woody stem; intersectional or Itoh peonies – cross between a herbaceous and tree peony; and woodland peony (P. japonica) – white blossoms, grows in shade.

Peonies are considered fairly drought tolerant, i.e., they don’t need much watering except during the hot, dry summer months. They do like quite a bit of sunshine, though; too much shade will result in too many leaves and not many blooms.

While peonies don’t need mulching, a layer of compost in spring will not only add nutrients to the soil, but will also help retain moisture during the summer months. A low-nitrogen fertilizer (5-10-10) can be added in spring and about halfway through the growing season.

Peonies may need to be staked, especially if the variety produces large blossoms and the stalks can’t fully support them. The best stakes are in the form of a large circular tomato cage; nurseries and garden centers will have them.

Some peony varieties are floriferous, meaning that they produce more than one flower per stalk. The main bud will flower followed by the side buds. If you want bigger blossoms you can remove those side buds so that all the flower-producing energy goes into that one flower. On the other hand, leaving the side buds alone will lengthen the overall blooming time.

Be sure to deadhead spent blooms so the plant’s energy doesn’t go into producing seed. A plant uses all its food reserves to make seed which will result in smaller and fewer blossoms the following year. In the fall when the leaves die back, cut the stems down to about 3 inches to prevent fungal diseases from overwintering on the leaves.

Your peonies won’t bloom? Here are few reasons why:

  • Newly planted, or just transplanted – peonies will take a year or two to bloom after being planted or transplanted. They don’t like to be moved at all so they should be divided or transplanted only when necessary.
  • Planted too deep – peonies prefer to have their roots near the surface of the soil.
  • Too much shade – dig them up in the fall and transplant to a sunnier location. Remember that they will take a year or two to bloom again.

Got ants? Don’t worry – they won’t hurt the plant; they’re after the sweet sap that the flowers produce. Just be sure to shake them off before bringing the cut flowers indoors.

[Acknowledgements. The authors, Debbie Martin (Gardening with Kids) and Ann Acton (Peonies), are master gardeners in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]



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