Growing accidents can yield great results

Duane Campbell

I just forced a fern leaf peony, Paeonia tenuifolia, by accident. It was a happy accident. And Iíve stumbled into this sort of thing before.

My first time was long ago, and it was with a hydrangea. It was unplanned, and not surprisingly, I didnít know what I was doing. As usual, with accidents you learn something, and it often leads to doing it again, with other plants,and doing it better.

It happened because I often pot up shrubs and perennials, sometimes because I bought them and havenít gotten them into the ground yet, sometimes because I bought them and have no idea where I am going to plant them. These are hardy plants, but they wonít take as much winter as their kin planted in the ground. I move them up next to the foundation for some protection, but sometimes I forget.

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One I forgot was that hydrangea, left abandoned at the end of the garden path. I happened to notice it during a bitter cold spell. I brought it into the basement to thaw out and promptly forgot it again. Hydrangeas are quite forgettable.

A few weeks later I noticed it was sprouting, pale leaflets trying to grow in the dark. I brought it upstairs, put it on the cool sun porch, and it bloomed while there was still snow on the ground. I was delighted. I decided this was something I could do on purpose.

And I did, though it took me a few times to get it right. Doing it on purpose was harder than doing it by accident.

I leave pots outside until Christmas or early January, long enough so that they know itís winter, not so long that the roots go sub-zero. Or sometimes during a January thaw I may dig up plants and bulbs for forcing. I learned that they donít like to come immediately into living room temperatures. Even in our sweater compliant house, they wake up too fast and blossoms can blast. Mimic spring. Keep them cool at first (they donít need light at this point), then warmer. If you can do it in stages, that is ideal. It turns out my basement followed by the unheated sun porch worked perfectly. My usual proscription against fertilizing plants indoors in winter doesnít apply to plants sprouting leaves and trying to grow. Feed them, but lightly.

The fern leafed peony is a similar story. What a wonderful plant! Tough as nails, our ancestors carried the roots west in covered wagons and planted them around farmhouses on the prairie. Given minimal care, they will last for decades. Or more. I suspect some of those pioneer plants are still growing feral around long ruined houses.

Given their rugged nature and the fact that they multiply if fed well, I have no idea why they are so hard to find commercially and so heart-grabbing expensive, often around fifty bucks. But for those who are not afraid of spending serious money on plants, they are certainly worth it.

Mine has fire engine red fully double flowers above two foot ferny foliage. It had been in the ground for at least twenty years when I decided to move it. Though they donít really ever need dividing, I replanted the big chunk but put a couple of pieces in gallon pots for Ö I dunno. I just did. Though they would be perfectly happy outdoors all winter, in the chaos of hauling in less hardy plants I brought in one of the small peonies. I didnít even notice what it was, just another black nursery pot, until it sprouted. No mistaking that foliage.

Along with several other plants I have tricked, it will take the edge off February.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at 12 Burgess Drive, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail dcamp911@gmail.com.