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Peony - The Garden Workhorse

June 2014     

Thoughts from the Cottage…

In gardening, and in life, it's nice to find things you can count on. In the plant world, peonies rank at the top of my list. Beautiful form, breathtaking range of colors, and exceptional hardiness, few other plants once established bloom so reliably year after year with such little care. Large, glorious flowers add bright splashes of color to beds and borders and their intoxicating fragrance make them a wonderful cut flower. Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia), which have foliage that dies back during the dormant season, are quintessential perennials. They stay where you put them, live for an astounding 40 to 50 years, and require very little attention. They survive the harshest winters, easily resist drought, and aren't bothered by  deer or rabbits. They are truly known as the garden workhorse -particularly beautiful workhorses. What more can you ask for?

Good -To - Know: Planting Tips…

 Spare the fertilizer. Work the soil well before you plant, mixing in a little fertilizer, and that should be enough.

 If your soil is poor, the time to apply fertilizer (bone meal, compost, or well-rotted manure) is early summer, after the peonies have bloomed and you have deadheaded. Don't fertilizer more than every few years.

 Help the stems. If peonies have any structural weakness, it is their stems, which are sometimes not strong enough to support their gigantic blossoms. Consider three-legged metal peony rings that allow the plant to grow through the center of the rings. Just remember to set them early, when the plants are just popping up.

 Deadhead peony blossoms as soon as they begin to fade, cutting to a strong leaf so that the stem doesn't stick out of the foliage. Cut the foliage to the ground in the fall to avoid any over wintering disease.

 Don't smother peonies with mulch. Where cold temperatures are severe, for the first winter after planting you can mulch VERY loosely with pine needles or shredded bark. Remove mulch in the spring.

 Peonies are generally very hearty. They are prone to Verticillium wilt, ringspot virus, tip blight, stem rot, Botrytis blight, left blotch, Japanese beetle, and nematodes.

 Many gardeners wonder why so many ants crawl on the peony buds. They are eating nectar in exchange for attacking bud-eating pests. Leave the ants alone; they're helping your peonies to bloom.

Did you know? The traditional floral symbol of China, the state flower of Indiana, and the 12th wedding anniversary flower, peonies are known as the flower of riches and honor. With their lush, full, rounded bloom, peonies embody romance and prosperity and are regarded as an omen of good fortune and a happy marriage. Do not worry – there will not be a test!

Peonies were often planted in rows or set out as islands of flowers encircled by the lawn. I prefer to mix them with other plants in flower borders such as shrub roses, foxglove, iris, daylilies, phlox, perennial geranium and lamb's ear. Since peonies don't like to be moved once they're established, it's best to plant them in permanent spots with other hardy perennials. As their blooms fade, the plant's rich green foliage mixes well with other perennials and also makes an attractive background for shorter annuals. You can plant peonies amid spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils or tulips. After the bulbs bloom, the emerging peony foliage helps camouflage the bulbs fading leaves

One of my biggest attractions to the peony is its long life. I've heard of peonies outliving the gardeners who planted them – so far mine have surviving 30 years! The key to longevity is how they are planted. Plant the bare root tubers in the fall just as the autumn leaves begin to turn. Choose a well-drained site in full sun, although light shade will keep some darker colors from fading. Prepare the soil before planting by adding well-rotted manure, compost and bone meal as needed. The number one rule is not to plant too deep. Make sure the 'eyes' on the tubers are pointing up and are covered with only about 2 inches of soil. A little less deep in warmer climates is fine. Trust me, if you plant them too deep, you will have foliage, but no flowers. Take into account their mature size when planting them so they aren't crowded and mulch the area in early winter to avoid frost-heaving of the tubers. It usually takes two years after planting before any flowers are produced. I will say it again - Don't plant too deep! In most of the country, the peony's eyes (buds) should be no deeper than 1-1/2 to 2 inches below the soil line! If you don’t get any flowers – it is most likely because they are too deep.

Young peonies take time to develop. They usually need a few years to establish themselves, bloom, and grow. So be patient – you will reap the rewards! Peonies thrive on benign neglect. Unlike most perennials, they don't need to be dug and divided.

. Good - to - Know: Peony Arranging Tips…

Peonies are spring-bloomers, but you can plan your garden for a successive display of flowers from mid-May to early June. Here are some choices:

 'Early Scout': very early, red single flowers

 'Firelight': very early pale-pink single

 'Karl Rosenfield': midseason double with large crimson blossoms

 'Norma Volz,' midseason large, white, fully double flower

 'Elsa Sass': late-season double with pure-white, camellia-like flowers

America's love affair with peonies has been a long and successful one. I have fond memories of rows of pink and white peonies blooming in my grandmother's garden. In many parts of the country peonies open near the end of May, a characteristic that makes them the flower of choice for Memorial Day decorations. Through the years plant breeders have developed a spectacular array of new colors, flower forms, and blooming times to give gardeners even more selection. Today you can enjoy nearly 6 weeks of continuous bloom by planting early, mid and late season varieties. Hybridizers have also   developed peonies with stronger stems to hold aloft the plant's large, heavy blooms. And they have developed hardy new varieties for gardeners in the north and south, expanding the range of the plant's popularity. It is no wonder they are so loved!