Peonies remind many gardeners of their families
Because cold and snow came earlier than usual this year, I started reviewing last season's photos of the garden earlier, too. One of the things I noticed is I don't have enough peonies, and now I have all winter to decide which varieties to select come spring.
Most of our grandmothers had peonies in their gardens because of their many benefits including showstopping, fragrant flowers as beautiful in a vase as in the garden, attractive glossy green foliage all season long, adaptability to a range of soil types, low maintenance, and ability to outlive their gardeners. Or maybe they grew them because their mother grew them and shared divisions with them. Plants from my grandmother's gardens and from my husband's grandmother's beds now live in my garden -- precious links to past generations.
Garden peonies usually begin blooming around Memorial Day in shades of pink, red, yellow and white. Their flowers may be single, semidouble or fully double. Plants have an upright, rounded habit and grow up to 3 feet tall. Their foliage dies back to the ground in winter. Tree peonies bloom a bit earlier than garden peonies and have woody stems. Although they drop their leaves in fall, their stems do not die back. They are majestic plants that slowly grow to 5 feet tall.
Plant garden peonies in perennial, shrub and mixed borders or utilize them as a small hedge. There are hundreds of varieties available. Festiva Maxima is an old-fashioned variety with double white flowers, their petals sometimes flecked with red. Scarlett O'Hara is another heirloom variety with large, single red flowers punctuated with yellow stamens. The unique and spectacular blooms of Raspberry Sundae have layers of pink, white and cream petals.
Tree peonies are ideal as focal points toward the back of the border or beside a deck or patio where their immense flowers can be admired up close and personal. Hanakisoi boasts soft apricot flowers -- each petal with a pink margin. Kokuryunishiki sports reddish purple blooms -- its petals brushed with pink flames. The flowers of Shimane Otone Mai are semidouble with ruffled, rose-pink petals.
Peonies ask for little more than to be planted in mostly sunny conditions. Plants bloom more profusely with more sun but a bit of shade in the afternoon helps flowers retain their rich color. They prefer well-drained soil that has been amended with compost but are adaptable.
The key to planting peonies is to be sure they are planted at the correct depth. The eyes (growing tips) of garden peonies should be less than 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Planted deeper than this, they may not bloom. Tree peonies are grafted and should be planted so the graft union is 5 to 6 inches below the soil.
Container-grown peonies can be planted all season, but plant peony roots in the fall and fertilize with bonemeal or superphosphate to encourage growth. Water them deeply after planting and add a thin layer of mulch to help the soil retain moisture and prevent roots from heaving out of the soil during freeze/thaw cycles in winter.
Garden peonies with huge double flowers need support to avoid a carpet of blooms on the ground after rain. Grow-through rings can be purchased or supports can be fashioned from tomato cages and twine. Whichever type of support used, install it in early spring so foliage can grow around and through it, covering it, as it grows.
Garden peonies generally don't need to be divided, but if you want to share your peony with friends and family, the best time to divide is in late summer or early fall. Make sure each division has three to five eyes and plant them as soon as possible so they have time to settle in before winter. Do not divide tree peonies.
Remove the foliage of garden peonies from the garden in fall to reduce the chance of fungal diseases next year. Because of their woody stems, tree peonies should not be cut back.
Slow-to-establish peonies play the part of the tortoise in the race but are well worth the wait. Now I just have to decide which new types will call my garden home next year.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at gardenwithdiana.com.