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CPR for Annuals: Peat and Repeat

So, here we are, into the really hot weather in Upstate NY and the annuals, as they say, are looking a bit peak-ed. Now, part of that comes with annual territory since the job of an annual plant is to grow, flower, set seed and they are done. There are ways to lengthen that period, such as pinching back, dead heading and so on but in the end, it’s a race against seed formation.

Another thing is that they really don’t handle stress well (there are days when your Aunt Toby feels much the same way). For some plants, even transplanting sends them into hyperdrive straight to seeds, the dreaded ‘bolting’. For others, any dry spells and they decide to go ‘toes up’.

And the dry spells is what I’m addressing here. Usually, I buy annuals in six packs because I am somewhat of a control freak when it comes to my window boxes and planters and put a lot of thought into what goes into the mix that is in them — I hate to have to water a lot and using vermiculite and compost tends to put a good spongy layer around the plants which holds water for more than 15 minutes.

This spring, as a quick ‘pick me up’ (some people use the liquor cabinet; your Aunty likes to throw a lot of color into the yard), I bought a couple of big hanging baskets, chock full of color. They looked great for about 3 days and then I had to start watering them.

And watering them.

And watering them.

And the DH was pouring the bin at the bottom of the dehumidifier from the back basement on them and I was watering them at the end of the day too.

And the little celestial gardener’s voice kept saying, “You got lazy and didn’t transplant the plants in those baskets and they were probably planted in you-know-what and that never holds water.”

“Yes, yes..you are right and I was lazy and I can’t get to them now.”

And it just got worse, so this morning, I just sucked it up and mixed up some compost and vermiculite (which by the way is heated and expanded mica, for those readers who like to astonish their friends with their scientific knowledge) and pulled down the baskets, pulled off the hangers, dragged around a bin to empty the pots into and took a look.

The picture at the top tells the entire story (cue sad “Gone With The Wind” music): roots all the way to the outside of the pot; and the entire pot filled with a combination of peat and perlite.

Light. Fluffy. The grow mix equivalent of meringue. Great for starting seeds in; great for home and garden centers which have staff people wandering around with watering-wands 12 hours a day or drip irrigation tubes running all over the place to every pot in the place. If you have constant moisture being applied, this stuff is aces and the plants always look tiptop, delicious, full of flowers and foliage and the marketability is just astonishing.

Except that no one at home HAS staff with watering-wands running about all day long or drip-irrigation going to all the baskets and flower boxes and running all the time. This type of mix, once the moisture stops, dries, gets hard, and shrinks up on the root balls. And the plants start to wilt and are stressed and would really love to just put their roots up, have a big glass of something cool and watch a good film.

Or die.

So. When your annuals start to look a bit long in the tooth, here is what Aunt Toby does. As long as the plants have not all gone to seed, they have some growth and flowers still in them but you have to fool them into thinking “OMG – the days are getting shorter and here I am with no seed heads; I’m a failure.” And the way to do that is to cut them back severely. Yes, they will look ugly for a bit, but it’s the best thing for them, really.

At the same time, you can repot as I am doing. First, as in the photo above, expose the roots and dig out the planting mix from the bottom and open up the roots. Be assertive (think Julia Child, the knife and the lobster). Fill the pot back up most of the way with good nutritious stuff — not more peat and perlite grow mix if you please. And water it well; if it’s sloppy, so much the better. Put the plant back in the pot and put more of your yummy stuff into the pot – tuck a lot between the plant(s) and the sides of the pot and put more on top and give the pot a good shoogle (that’s a technical term) to settle the stuff into any holes you’ve missed. Now, the pot is going to be heavy (you already put water into it) so put it into a shady spot or back where you had it before – on the hook, the deck or whatever. Now take a gallon of water and pour as much of that slow….ly….and…carefully over the top, a little bit at a time. And watch the bottom of the pot and when water starts to come out of the bottom, then stop. If you are a ‘put two plant spikes into every pot’ person, then go ahead and put those in there too. If you are not, you can and probably should whip up some compost or manure tea and water with that because the plants have been through a heck of a thing there and need the equivalent of chicken soup and a good rest.

The plants are going to look sort of shaggy for probably a week. During that time, they are sending out more roots, luxuriating in the new potting mix and settling in. Then they will start sending out new leaves and then flowers, which will get you more of a color show for the rest of the summer.

Which is the whole point.

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