Friday, September 28, 2012

Peonies: More than a pretty face

Start planning for spring blooms
By The Niagara Falls Review (Theresa Forte)

 To be both garden-worthy and a good investment, a plant needs more than a pretty face. Show me a plant with good colour and form and a tag that reads "Dependable, self-sufficient, trouble-free, several seasons of interest, and long-lived," and chances are I'll make room in the garden. Sound impossible?
Old-fashioned peonies fit the bill. While your grandmother may not have been a gardener, I'll bet she knew a simple peony division, planted in decent soil and in a sunny location, would bloom for generations. Peony divisions were routinely given to family members when they moved away - the roots were planted in distant gardens as a reminder of home.
In Gardening with Heirloom Plants, David Stuart notes the common herbaceous peony, Paeonia lactiflora, grew in China by 1100 AD. One 16th-century nursery was known to have stocked 30 plants. Europeans crossed P. lactiflora with P. officinalis and by the 1850s, there were endless gorgeous flowers, like the double white peony, Festiva Maxima (dating to 1851) which is still sold today.
Peonies have thick, fleshy roots that will eventually stretch deep into the ground. For best results, plant them in a spot with deep, well-drained, humus-rich soil. Choose their site carefully, peonies resent being moved - I once killed a perfectly content tree peony by moving it, on a whim, to a different spot in the garden.
Peonies can take a year or two to settle in before blooming. If you want instant colour (and less fuss) purchase potted peonies already in bloom from your local garden centre in the spring. Alternately, with patience, you can start the plants yourself, either from divisions from a friends' garden or by purchasing rhizomes. The best time to plant rhizomes (or to divide peonies) is in the fall.

Resembling a sweet potato with tuberous roots, peony rhizomes should have at least two or threwe swollen buds on the tuber. Plant the rhizome with the roots pointing downward, setting the buds four to five centimetres below the soil. Do not cover the buds with more than 7.5 cm of soil or the plants will not bloom. This also applies to container-grown peonies, which should be set in the ground at the same level they were growing in their pot. Old time gardeners describe peony stems that do not flower as "coming up blind." If your plants do not bloom after several years, they may be planted too deep. The problem can sometimes be solved by digging up the rhizomes and setting them at their preferred soil depth, where they will normally bloom the following spring.
Double-flowering peonies need staking. During spring rainfall - and it always rains when the peonies are out - the petals soak up water like a sponge. Without fail, the waterlogged flowers flop unceremoniously on their neighbours, or even worse, collapse over the edge of their supports. It's not pretty, but it does give you a good excuse to cut the flowers and enjoy them inside.
To prevent disappointment and save on the bother of staking peonies, I recommend trying the single-flowered varieties. While individual peonies only bloom for about three weeks, you can enjoy peony flowers over a long period by choosing early, mid-season, and late bloomers for your garden (see sidebar). They make wonderful cut flowers.
Peonies die right back to the ground over the winter, leaving an opening that is ideal for early spring bulbs such as crocus, grape hyacinth, mini-daffodils and species tulips (all easy-care choices) in your border. Remove all dead leaves in the fall to help prevent disease problems.
Good companion plants include lady's mantle perennial geraniums, foxglove and old-fashioned roses. Include plantings of autumn-blooming monkshood and Japanese anemone to make the most of the beautiful fall foliage on the peonies.
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WORRIED ABOUT ANTS? To make sure cut peonies are ant-free, cut the flowers just as the buds start to open. Plunge the stems, bud and all, in a bucket of water for a few minutes and gently shake dry. Place the flowers in a large vase indoors to open. To extend their season, cut peony stems can be stored in the fridge for several weeks before bringing them into a warm room to open.

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