Precious Peonies: Beauty Worth the Wait
Patience doesn’t come easy, we know. After all, it’s hard to wait for something when most of the time you can run to the 24-hour store, get online, or make a phone call to get what you want right away.
Alas, many gifts from nature do require patience. In particular, one illustrious and desirable spring beauty that will force you to wait is the peony. Oh yes, this lush green creature that sways daintily in the breeze will make you wait all right. Love her as much as you like, and she will still hold back those plumes of petals for years. To make things worse, if you spoil her with fertilizer or water, she will only turn her back on you, dramatically lying down upon your lawn.
Chin up, though. Let that peony take all the time she needs to blossom, and you will see a display that is truly worth the wait.
Careful Planting Yields Best Results
There are more species, colors and scents of peonies than you could ever plant in one yard. So the easiest place to start if you’re planting peonies is to narrow things down by the bloom cycle.
If you want to make sure your yard is filled with peonies in spring and into the summer, look closely at the tags on the containers when purchasing your peonies. They’ll be marked as early-, mid- and late-season bloomers, and ideally you should have all three in your yard. Blooms last on average about two weeks, and by mixing peonies, you ensure that you’ll have beautiful displays for up to six weeks. Another gift from this generous plant? It will bring color to your landscape long beyond the blooming season. Once the flowers of spring and summer have dissipated, the foliage will turn shades of red, purple and copper throughout the fall.
Choosing a home for a peony may be the most difficult part of raising one. Peonies can live for more than 100 years, but they don’t easily forgive you if you move them. When you pick a home for your peonies, make sure it provides full sun, lots of free space to grow, and soil with good drainage. Peonies need at least six hours, preferably more, of full sun each day. It is a rare peony that can put up with shade.
The best time to plant a bare root peony is in the fall. If you plant a mature peony in the spring, it will likely take longer to settle into its new home. To plant one, dig a hole about 15 inches deep and 15 inches wide. Add some compost to the hole, then place the roots down in the hole. Cover with dirt, making sure that the buds, or eyes, rest just two inches below the soil surface. Do not plant them any deeper or the peony will not offer any flowers. Gently press the soil down onto the roots to fill the hole with dirt, leaving no room for air pockets. Water thoroughly once you’ve completed the planting. If you plant multiple peonies, leave three feet or more between each plant to allow room for growth. Peonies, which reach 30 to 36 inches wide and 30 to 36 inches tall, need plenty of room so that air can flow through them. Without that airflow, they are at increased risk of developing a fungal disease.
And don’t forget, patience. Peonies can take up to three years to become established. They will bloom in the spring and early summer, but don’t expect to see spectacular blooms for a few years. And don’t try to rush your peony along by overfeeding or overwatering it. Peonies are for the patient gardener.
Low Maintenance, High Drama
Peonies are easy to grow and care for because they ask for so little. They ask merely for sun, compost, soil that drains well, and a bit of water. A peony only needs to be mulched once, during its first winter while it establishes itself. It requires either a 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 fertilizer mix, only once or twice a year. Once planted, you must resist the urge to pamper the peony with plenty of water and high-nitrogen fertilizer. That combination is guaranteed to upset a peony and fool you into thinking you have done the right thing. Make no mistake, a peony that gets lots of water and fertilizer will grow quickly. As a result, though, it will have weak stems and heavy leaves. When that happens, these plants spring up quickly and then keel over, because the weight of flowers and leaves is too great for the stems.
To help your peony reach its full potential—which is to say, give you massively huge blooms that drive neighbors wildly jealous—you’ll want to try your hand at disbudding or deadheading. To disbud a stem, leave the bud at the tip of the stem, called the terminal bud, and remove all other buds on that stem. This allows all the nutrients in that stem to go to that one bud. As soon as the flower has faded, remove it from the stem, snipping just below the flower.
Two of the biggest no-nos when caring for a peony are pruning and insecticide. Prune a peony, and it will not share a single flower with you next season. Remember a peony will stretch upward and out as it grows, so make sure you give it a home that offers plenty of room. As for those ants sucking on the sticky sweet nectar upon peony petals, leave them alone. The insects will not damage the blooms, but insecticide will. Some gardeners believe that ants help peony flowers open, but there is no evidence that ants help or harm a peony. Ants will only be interested in a peony for a brief time before they parade off, so it’s best to just let them enjoy themselves.
Peonies do need to be cut back after the first fall frost. Cut all of the stems low to the ground and leave about three inches of stem. This will help protect the plant from fungal diseases. If you suspect an infection—signs include wilting and the shrub falling over—act quickly to prevent it from spreading. The most common threat is Botrytis blight, a fungal disease that thrives in damp conditions. It will cause the stems to rot, turning both the stems and buds black. If the plant is in bloom, the flowers are likely to turn brown and moldy. To save an infected peony, remove all infected stems and foliage, clear away mulch, and allow the soil to thoroughly dry.
Bring Your Blooms Inside
Southern tables yearn for vases overfilled with peonies, the grand dame of the garden. Roses are lovely and lilies are brilliant, but only the peony ages so beautifully. With blooms the size of a softball, peonies planted properly in your garden can supply rooms with color and a sweet earthy fragrance for decades. Each peony will bring with it a different scent—some strong, others faint. In order to have a successful peony display in your home, you do have to follow a few rules.
Creating your floral display must always begin with a sharp, clean hand pruner. It is best to select blossoms that have yet to open; they are least likely to have attracted ants, and they are also the most attractive in the home. Once you’ve brought them inside, the blooms will open wide and not fade like they might when they are outside.
Cut stems below the foliage at an angle. Aim to leave at least 15 inches of the lower stem still attached to the base of the plant. Once you have clipped the flowers from one plant, wipe the blade clean before moving to the next plant. This helps prevent the spread of disease and infection among the plants.
Be careful to remove only a third of the peonies from any one plant for display. Cutting more flowers can mean fewer flowers next season.
Don’t let ants dissuade you from a glorious peony display either. The key is to snip the flowers early, before the ants come. Remember they are attracted to the sweet substance on the petals; you just have to beat them to it. If ants have already appeared, cut the stem and place the flowers in a water-filled vase. Place the vase in the shade and leave it on the porch overnight. The ants will dissipate, allowing you to bring the blooms inside, unharmed and uninfested, in the morning.
Now that’s something worth waiting for.
Special thanks to Catherine Epperly, assistant manager of Rainfrost Nursery, for sharing everything she knows about the peony.