Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Peonies may flop, but they don't ask for much


There's something ridiculous about peonies. Those big busty blooms. The chicken leg stems. And the way the plants collapse — like exhausted showgirls after a Las Vegas show — the moment it rains.

Even so, I'm a fan. They are the Dolly Parton's of the garden — a bit too flashy and over the top, yet undeniably fascinating. In fact, every spring, when their weird gobstopper buds start forming, I can't wait for the parade.

And parade my Dolly's do — like clockwork. I have 10 massive clumps which grow in poor dry soil on a slope exposed to winds. They wound up there after I threw a party and asked friends to bring plenty of vino — plus any peonies they didn't want. Boy, I sure got them. The root balls of these tough-as-old-boots heirloom varieties were enormous and practically gave me a hernia. But now, they churn out blooms the size of dinner plates— and in such huge numbers, I'm continually amazed. Their only requirement seems to be lots of sun and good drainage.

Even better, peonies don't whine about our winters. By contrast, roses — the only flowers that I think come close in sheer beauty to the perfection of a peony bloom — can be much more finicky.

Peonies' drawback is, of course, that they flop. (And believe me, folks, they're all prone to do this, even new, single-flowered varieties and “tree” kinds, which some people insist are more upstanding.) But if rain is forecast, I just grab the pruners and rush around like crazy, chopping the gigantic blooms off, because peonies are surely the world's most elegant cut flowers. They may not last long — their petals drop annoyingly quickly after coming indoors — but who cares?

For a few glorious days during peony season, my humble abode out in the boonies looks quite Martha Stewartish.

Hot Tip
Want to stop the flop? Garden centres sell cages to prop top-heavy peonies up, but they're usually pricey. Try, instead, this cheap tip I picked up from a frugal farmer neighbour. (In rural southern Ontario, peonies are a tradition. Just about every old brick farmhouse has a clump somewhere outside.) Sink three strong wooden stakes in a triangular shape around the clump. Then cut a piece of wide gauge chicken wire in a slightly larger triangle and position this over the tops of the stakes. Twist cut ends of wire around the stakes for firmness. Do it early in the season. Admittedly, Martha wouldn't approve, but peony foliage, which is thick and plentiful, soon shoots up through the holes in the wire and covers this ugly contraption completely.

Dig this
Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens Peony Festival

The peonies won't, alas, be looking great this year (many bloomed too early, because of the unseasonably hot weather), but go anyway, because the Canadian Peony Society is holding its annual show in an adjacent building. That means lots to see indoors, plus speakers and demonstrations.

“Members have been keeping cut peonies in their fridges,” says spokesperson Ken Brown. “We expect to have about 1,000 blooms on display.”

This Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 155 Arena St., Oshawa. Admission free. Indoor peony show opens at 1 p.m.

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