The blanket of tree peonies that covers John Tai's front and back gardens does more than beautify his property. He credits his obsession with these colourful flowers with helping him control depression.
“I got into growing peonies for my physical and mental health, mostly mental. I love them,” he says simply. “Because the flowers are beautiful they give me a lot of joy and a good time in spring, summer and fall. Growing them gets into your veins.”
Describing himself as “the original Wild Man of Borneo,” John was born in the Malaysian state of Sabah (formerly British North Borneo) 80 years ago. He immigrated to Canada from Singapore in 1972.
John had suffered from bouts of depression for most of his adult life. Back in the early 1950s, while he was visiting Singapore, a Roman Catholic priest suggested John take up a hobby to combat the depression and a Belgian bishop recommended gardening. In 1993, during a particularly bad time-“I was drinking too much, out of a job and beginning to lose myself,” the former cook and waiter recalls-John came across an article about a huge tree peony festival held in Luoyang, in Henan Province, in China Pictoral magazine.
Looking at pictures of a red-and-white-coloured peony called ‘Eriqiao' (‘Twin Beauty' is the English name), something clicked and he remembered the advice of his old friends. “I pray for [my advisors] almost every night,” he says, because growing tree peonies has given him a new lease on life.
A few years ago, John got to visit Luoyang in late April-peony season, when more than one million peonies, including 500 cultivars, bloom.
John didn't know where to purchase Chinese tree peonies when he started out, so he bought four Japanese ones from a local supermarket in the west end of Toronto.
He continued to acquire more Japanese cultivars each year and was finally able to obtain three Chinese tree peonies from the West Coast through his friend and mentor John Simkins, founder of the Canadian Peony Society. Only one of the trio survived. A Canadian Fruit Inspection Agency ban on importing rooted plants from China because of an infection makes it impossible to import them directly.
“You can import them from Europe, Japan or the U.S. and pay steep prices, and you may get the plant you wanted or not-and it may or may not be healthy,” says John Tai. Commercial nurseries get a much better quality tree. “It's best to go to Canadian sources in May to see the plants in bloom, put down a deposit on the ones you like and make the final purchase in September.”
Tree peonies are usually sold only in spring. “I don't understand why,” says John, who recommends planting them in mid-September. Install bare-rooted specimens as soon as you get them. But, if they're in containers and potted carefully, you can plant them in spring, says John.
“The Chinese traditionally plant herbaceous peonies on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month-mid-August-and tree peonies on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month-mid-September,” he says.
Today, John has about 200 tree peonies, both Japanese and Chinese and other hybrids. (He also grows herbaceous peonies, delphiniums, roses, shasta daisies and foxtail lilies.)
Both herbaceous and tree peonies (which grow on woody stems to a height of one metre or more) revel in climates with cold, snowy winters and are hardy to Zone 3. John leaves most of his out in the open without protection but mulches any that are not deeply planted (i.e., you can see their roots) with a 10-centimetre-deep mixture of soil and manure.
The biggest mistakes you can make when growing peonies, says John, are overwatering and/or over-fertilizing. “They don't need to be coddled. In fact, a tree peony can live for more than 100 years if you take care of it properly.”
John is starting to propagate known tree peony cultivars from China, experimenting with seeds, division and grafting. He hopes to build a small hobby business for other people who would like to grow his seedlings in their backyards instead of depending on foreign imports for selection.
So what began as a form of therapy for John has not only become a positive obsession but may also benefit other tree peony lovers.
Place each tree peony in a hole that's 60 centimetres deep by 60 centimetres wide. Put a handful of bone meal in the hole and plant the bud union 10 to 15 centimetres below the soil. Fertilize with compost or mix and enrich them with additional bone meal. Firm the soil and water well. Plant them at least 1.2 metres apart.
When John Tai visited China, he discovered that tree peonies will grow in just about any soil as long as it's not waterlogged; slightly acidic or neutral soil is best.