Dear Problem Lady – October 2017


I know I should mulch my garden to help my plants survive winter – protect their roots and help them retain moisture – but I fear that while a layer of mulch is going to do the job and look neat, it will shut off plant roots from oxygen, which they need. What mulch is best, and how much of it should I spread?
A shallow layer (two inches max) of compost or well-composted leaves makes the best mulch. Do not use mulch that has not been composted first. Raw shredded wood or bark, straw, pine needles, sawdust – all steal precious nitrogen from soil as they decompose. In addition, fine pine and cedar wood shavings are very acidic, so use them only on plants that need acid soil.

Can you advise about bulb planting? I know tulips don’t survive our hot summers very well, but I love them. What’s the best way to get a real show of tulips every year?
Plant new tulips every fall. Buy tulips that bloom early, in late March or early April, before the weather gets hot. Choose the biggest bulbs. Prepare a fairly deep bed, say nine inches or so deep, and space your bulbs around the bottom of the bed fairly close together, about four or five inches apart. Fill up the bed with good, loose rich earth. Cover the bed with metal screening known as hardware cloth to keep out squirrels. Remove it after the ground has frozen. 

When can I cut ratty-looking peony leaves away?
Cutting back peonies is a once-a-year task. When to cut back peonies? The right time for peony pruning is in fall, after frost has killed leaves. How to prune peonies? Clip stems as close to the ground as possible. Gather all leaves, stems, and any other plant debris. Don’t compost this leafy material; bag it and put it out with the trash. Destroying it is better because peonies often have fungal diseases that can survive winter on a piece of leaf or stem.

And the best time, spring or fall, for planning clematis? I have my eye on General Sikorski – the most heavenly mauve color.
Fall is a grand time, while weather is still warm enough to help start the roots. And so is spring. Remember to dig a very deep hole, plant a bit deeper than the bottom growth, which you then cut off. Fill the hole with top-quality compost and a handful of bone meal. Mulch well. Plant about six inches out from a fence or wall so the clematis will catch enough rain. Use a small-bore trellis or chicken wire against the fence and train any existing shoots to ray out, even parallel, along the wires.


The next public meeting of the Capitol Hill Garden Club occurs on Oct. 10 at the Northeast Public Library, corner of Maryland Avenue and Seventh Street NE. Meetings start at 7 p.m. and are free and open to all. Membership details: