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Ask Martha

How to treat discolored peonies

Cutting unhealthy leaves, clearing debris, and remaining vigilant are some easy ways to ensure colorful peonies.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Cutting unhealthy leaves, clearing debris, and remaining vigilant are some easy ways to ensure colorful peonies.

Q. My peonies bloom beautifully, but during the summer the leaves turn brown, and I’m afraid I’ll lose the entire plant. What should I do differently?

A. Peonies are robust; there are few diseases that seriously injure or kill them. Take some comfort in knowing that they probably aren’t in danger. The most common causes of discoloration are nonlethal diseases, such as powdery mildew. The solution is likely pretty simple: Cut unhealthy leaves back and clear debris. Repeat in the fall, before the first frost, so you can start anew next season. Then be vigilant next year and on the lookout for familiar symptoms, keep your garden clean, and be sure to refresh your mulch three or four times over the season.

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If the problem persists, however, it’s worth turning to a plant-diagnostics center, says Kathleen Gagan of Peony’s Envy, in Bernardsville, N.J. Reach out to your county’s cooperative extension office (visit www
.csrees.usda.gov/extension)
or the agricultural center at a nearby land-grant college. You’ll be asked to fill out a form and mail in a plant sample. A week or so and a small fee later, you’ll receive a diagnosis, a prognosis, and a treatment plan. This way, you can address the problem properly, rather than trying unnecessary treatments such as toxic fungicides. And the next time you see those brown leaves, you’ll know what to do. Be sure to dispose of any cuttings, and mulch properly; don’t compost them, or the problem could reappear and spread throughout your garden.

Q. What’s the best way to whip up fluffy meringues?

A. To get the consistency right, you need to consider the temperature of the eggs as well as your mixing speed. Egg whites always whip up best when the eggs are room temperature. Set eggs on a counter at least 30 minutes prior to preparation. If you are pressed for time, place the eggs in a bowl of warm (but not hot) water for five to 10 minutes.

When separating the whites from the yolks, be meticulous, as any fat from the yolks will cause airy beaten egg whites to deflate. To separate the eggs, use the hand method: Crack an egg, and pass the yolk back and forth between the broken shells, releasing the white into a cup. Then transfer the white to a bowl. Dropping the white of each egg into a cup before adding it to the bowl with the other whites will help prevent you from losing the whole batch if you make a mistake.

To help the whites fluff up, add an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice, when the whites become foamy while you are beating them. Use a ratio of teaspoon acid to two egg whites. When beating, always begin at a low speed, and gradually increase the speed until the mixture is glossy and stiff peaks form.

Q. My wooden salad spoons look oily and stained. What’s the best way to clean them?

A. Generally, the best way to clean any wooden utensil is to scrub it with a dish brush and hot soapy water. You can also try cleaning it with baking soda and a slightly damp nylon scouring pad. Keep in mind that if the stains on your wooden salad spoons are oil-based, they’re likely set in at this point and may be difficult to remove.

If stains are set in, use a fine steel-wool pad to apply a food-safe mineral oil, such as Tree Spirit ($7 for 8 ounces, www.williams-sonoma.com), to the spoons to see if you can blend the coloring of the stained and unstained parts. This camouflaging also conditions the wood, keeping it from drying out and cracking. In fact, it’s helpful to condition all wooden utensils every few months, because this creates a barrier against new stains and odors.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.
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