Power Of Peonies

from Perennials
Learn the basic care of a peony and your backyard perennial garden will pop with color from these fragrant blooms.

Ken Liberty planted his first peony at the age of 14, starting a hobby that’s grown for many years. “Watching a peony shoot come up in spring is like watching a rocket rise out of a silo in slow motion,” says Liberty, who lives in Bangor, Maine, and is president of the Peony Society of Maine. “The beauty of the flowers and variety of forms attract me. They’re also easy to grow and come up every year.”

Garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora cultivars and hybrids) are herbaceous perennials with big, often perfumed, blooms in snow white to pink, magenta, crimson, lavender, salmon, primrose yellow, or even green. Besides the blowsy blossoms, peony foliage makes a handsome dark green backdrop for later blooming annual and perennial flowers. Some peony foliage develops reddish fall color, adding another season of interest.

Hardy in Zones 3-8, peonies are bushy plants, averaging 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. They bloom 5-10 days in late spring and early summer, bearing 3- to 6-inch-diameter flowers in a handful of shapes. You can extend the peony season by choosing early, midseason, and late-blooming varieties from among the more than 1,000 named peonies that exist.

To make wise selections, it helps to know peonies’ many forms.
  • Single: Rows of five or more big petals encircle a fertile center of seed-bearing yellow stamens.
  • Japanese, including anemone: Five or more petals ring a showy cluster of small, sterile, petallike segments.
  • Bomb: The blossom’s mounded center contains petals that are smaller than the outer petals, but have a similar color and texture.
  • Double: Large outer petals surround frilly overlapped petals of the same color in this big, classic, roselike globe; stamens are hard to see or gone.
  • Semidouble: While it has fewer inner petals than a double, the petals are fairly uniform; decorative, pollen-bearing, yellow stamens stand out against the petal color.

Using Peonies in the Landscape
Peonies are versatile, long-lived landscape plants used for low summer hedges and singly or grouped for a sumptuous focal point or accent in beds and borders.

“Mine are mostly massed in raised beds,” Liberty says of his Zone 4 garden. “I’ve seen people line walks or driveways with them, often repeating the same variety of peony.” About the only place these slow-growing plants won’t thrive is in containers.

“Peonies grow better in the ground because their tuberous roots can spread 1 to 2 feet beyond the plant,” he says. “You may have to use an ax to get old clumps out of the ground.”

When selecting peonies at a nursery, look for healthy plants with no signs of damage or disease. In the South, early-blooming single or Japanese types grow best. If you buy potted peonies, you can plant them anytime, but be patient because some may not bloom for at least a year or two. Bare-root peonies, ideally planted from September to mid-October, may take up to three years to flower.

Peony Pointers
Peonies are tough and need little care. Choose a site in moist, well-drained, relatively fertile soil. Set the plant so that eyes or buds at the top of a root are 1-2 inches below the soil surface. Bare-root plants or divisions should have at least five eyes. When planting a division, cut the root back to 8-12 inches, and keep it away from standing water, which can rot it.

Set containerized peonies in the ground no deeper than they were in the pot. No more than 1-2 inches of soil should cover the eyes. Mulch loosely the first winter after planting, removing it in spring.

“If established peonies grow leaves but don’t bloom, you’ve planted them too deep,” says Liberty, who grows many of his under maple trees. Space plants about 3 feet apart in full sun to partial shade. For best flowering, however, give peonies full sun and avoid competition from other plants.

“I use bone meal and wood ash in spring to fertilize my peonies,” Liberty says, acknowledging that some growers suggest fertilizing with bone meal in early summer after the plants have bloomed.

Peony Concerns
In the 19th century, growers bred peonies such as white ‘Festiva Maxima’ and deep-pink ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ for their huge double flowers. The drawback was that their stems couldn’t hold up the flowers. Some new hybrids boast more rigid stems that support the heavy blooms without the need for staking.

“Heavy doubles hold water, overloading the stems, and even sturdy stems can break from the weight,” Liberty says. “Growing rain-resistant types reduces grooming. Peony cages [two wire rings soldered to three wire stakes] work well when flowers are close to the bush, but long-stemmed varieties often flop or break. Staking each stem is the best way to deal with the long-stemmed varieties.”

And don’t worry about all those ants you’ll find crawling around in your plants. “Ants won’t hurt your peony or make it bloom,” Liberty says. “They’re attracted to the sweet nectar on the swelling buds. Just brush or shake them lightly off.”

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