Q: Why won't my peonies bloom? The buds look bruised and don't open all the way.
A: There are three explanations for buds that won't bloom. The first is botrytis blight, a fungal disease. It can hit plants as they emerge or once buds have formed. It's worse in rainy seasons and on plants growing in cool, wet, shady sites. The buds turn brown and then become covered with a fuzzy gray mold, which will spread down the stem. When you see symptoms, remove infected portions, throw them out (do not compost), and clean your shears with alcohol. If you need to move your peonies to a drier, sunnier spot, do it in fall, when the plants go dormant.
Bud blast is caused by environmental factors, such as late-spring frosts or a lack of potassium in the soil. It often affects young peonies, causing their buds to turn brown and hard when they are about the size of a pea. Get rid of infected areas, and have your soil tested for potassium deficiency.
Thrips are tiny insects that damage buds and flowers by sucking their juices. They cause the discoloring and setbacks you describe. To see if your peonies have them, shake the buds over white paper. If you see small gray, brown or yellow cigar-shape insects, you have thrips. Remove and discard the affected buds.
At the end of the season, always cut back and discard dead plants. Any remaining foliage gives pests and diseases a place to hibernate.
Rumor has it that peonies need ants in order to bloom. It's not true. But the insects do like to feast on sap secreted by the buds, and then on nectar once the flowers unfurl. Ants won't harm the plants, but if you're planning to bring blossoms into your house, remove the insects with a gentle spray of water.
Q: Why does the lettuce I'm growing taste bitter?
A: Throughout most of the United States, it's best to grow lettuce in spring and fall, though areas with cool summers, such as Maine or the Pacific Northwest, can often produce tasty lettuce all summer long.
Heat causes the plant to bolt, which means that it produces a flower stalk; this makes the leaves harsh tasting. An inconsistent watering schedule can also infuse lettuce with an unpleasant flavor.
To grow the best-tasting lettuce, sow seeds every few weeks until temperatures are consistently in the 80s, and again in late summer as cooler days return, continuing until there is frost.
Water the lettuce regularly and thoroughly. If the leaves still taste off, wash and dry the lettuce, and then refrigerate it overnight. The flavor should improve considerably.
Q: I am English and serve cheese after dessert. Some of my American friends serve cheese first. Who is right?
A: There are nearly as many ways to eat cheese as there are cheeses. Your friends would be right in France or in high-end U.S. restaurants that have adopted the French tradition. In those settings, the grand cheese cart is wheeled out before the Napoleons and iles flottantes grace the table. But in England, cheese - often Stilton, paired with port - comes after dessert.
And in the United States, a sharp cheddar and crackers may be eaten with predinner cocktails.
There's no right or wrong way to serve it. You could offer dessert and cheese at the same time so that guests can have them in whatever order they choose.