Much of what we do in our gardens at this time of year is a sign of endings. We harvest the late crops in the vegetable gardens. We clean out the perennial beds, if need be. These endings are good and often satisfying.

But beginnings are more fun. Planting something creates a hopeful feeling, as we think about future crops, blossoms, seeds and such. Two plants that are best put into the ground at this time of harvest and cleanup have little in common except for timing. These are beautiful peonies and pungent garlic.

Our peony-planting project will be especially enjoyable this year.

About a year ago I wrote about a birds-nest spruce that had grown so tall it overcrowded an entrance to our home, as well as the porch beside it. At first I tried to prune it back; we lived with the awkward results all summer. Then, a few weeks ago I solved the problem for good by digging out that overgrown spruce (now the chopped-up tree will become compost). While my wife, Nancy, and I were considering how to fill in this suddenly open space in one of the most prominent spots on our property, she recalled that she had ordered some peonies from Fedco.

We knew that the three Fedco peonies expected in the mail soon wouldn’t fill the spot, so we took a leisurely walk around our yard and observed several other peonies that needed a little breathing room. We will dig and divide those, which will provide enough plants to fill the now bare spot – about 8 feet by 6 feet. (That spruce grew really well).

Although peonies in pots can be purchased and planted in spring and summer, the plants develop more quickly and tend to blossom sooner if they are planted as bare roots in the fall. If you order them from a catalog, they will be shipped as bare roots.


Peonies prefer full sun, and while the site we have doesn’t get sun from sunrise to sunset, it does for five to six hours a day, and that’s as good as it gets on our property. They also want good drainage, and that we have.

Planting the bare roots is fairly easy. Dig a hole that will easily take the root with some extra space. Any bending of the root will cause problems. The topmost eye – from which the root will send up peony shoots – should be one to two inches below the ground level. Any deeper, and you will get good foliage but few blossoms. If you’re planting multiple peonies, plant them 3 feet apart. Water the peonies well when you plant them and, as with all newly planted perennials, shrubs and trees, water them regularly until the ground freezes.

Digging up the peonies already on our property will be almost as easy. First, cut the foliage down to the ground. Then dig up the entire peony, taking care not to damage the roots. Once the plant is out of the ground, carefully divide it into several clumps. Assuming the peony was doing well in its original home, put one clump back there. Then plant the other clumps following the same directions as for the purchased bare roots.

For the first year, it helps to mulch the roots to protect them from freeze-thaw cycles. Use whatever you have: straw, pine needles or chopped-up autumn leaves. Then sit back and watch.

It’s a good time to plant garlic. Step one: Divide the bulbs into cloves. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Planting garlic is simpler. We grow three types of garlic, all hardneck varieties, from a sampler purchase we made a few years ago. At this time in the season, garlic for planting is still available at some local garden stores, but it is probably too late to mail order any.

Divide the bulbs into separate cloves. Plant each clove about six inches deep. The key to getting large bulbs – ours were larger than ever when we dug them in early August – is to plant the cloves far enough apart, at least 6 inches. One year, when I tried to save space by planting them 4 inches apart, the bulbs we got were way too small.

Last year, we planted the cloves 8 inches apart, in four rows that were also 8 inches apart. It worked so well, I plan to do the same this year. Don’t fertilize until spring, but mulch the garlic now. Straw is often recommended, but I have successfully used pine needles some years and chopped-up leaves other years. Don’t bother to remove the mulch in the spring. The shoots will sprout right through the mulch.

I wonder if the peonies will be in bloom when I harvest next year’s garlic. I’m sure they will be blossoming when I cut the garlic scapes.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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