Monday, November 5, 2012

Peony Growing on the Rock

By Erin Cullen


Greetings from St. John’s, Newfoundland! Before you delve into this article, I feel that I just make a confession: although I am indeed a proud member of the Canadian Peony Society, I am a relatively new member and I consider myself to be a “Gardener in Training”. I became involved with the CPS through my mother who is an avid peony grower. By “avid” I mean she has a garden with well over 100 varieties of peonies that include every shape, size and colour and even includes some tree peonies.  Needless to say that as a new peony grower it’s a lot to live up to! I love gardening and growing beautiful peonies, but to date I must admit that I’m still learning.

My peony story dates back three years ago when I left Ontario and moved into a home of my own for the first time. Leaving the sunny skies of Southern Ontario, I drove for three grueling days and one ferry ride to arrive on this beautiful, foggy rock that we call Newfoundland. With my new home I inherited a few small gardens that were definitely in need of a little bit of tender loving garden care. The first spring in my new home, I immediately recognized those little red pointy shoots starting to pop out of the ground – a peony! ‘Mom will be so excited’ was my first thought. But as May passed and June was coming to a close, I thought for sure there was something wrong with my peony. It was only starting to form those perfect, globular buds. Knowing that peony season was in full force back home, I thought I had a failure. But patience is required for gardening, and by late in June I did have my peony open up and flower a gorgeous, rich magenta double bloom.  How beautiful! My euphoria was short-lived: it was right after the  first bloom that we had a bit of rain and my entire peony plant looked like it had been hit by a tidal wave. Those heavy blooms fell to the ground and made way for what looked like a hole in the centre of the plant. How sad to see those beautiful blooms lying in the dirt!

What I later found out through taking a course at the Memorial University Botanical Gardens in St. John’s, was that not only was my peony an “early bloomer” but it was also a heritage peony – Paeonia officinalis or 'Rubra Plena'. I think my look of complete confusion when I heard “early bloomer” was surprising to those who grew up in the area. Heritage peonies in Newfoundland were brought here by English settlers, likely prior to 1900. Women would hide small plants and roots and seeds in the hem of their skirts during the long journey across the ocean and plant
them upon arrival so that they had a ‘little bit of home’ in their new home. What an interesting
concept! I must admit, I’m curious to know what the border authority might do to you today if they found you with plant specimens hidden in your clothing!

Heritage peonies in Newfoundland are distinct for a few reasons – 1) they bloom earlier than other peonies Newfoundland. Yes, “early” means late June/early July. My other peonies are usually mid-July bloomers; however, even in three years of living here I can see that this can vary widely. Part of the reason for the variation is due to our climate in St. John’s. I think the best quote I have heard about the St. John’s climate is that “there is no ‘usual’ weather”. Being on the coast, we have what is referred to as a ‘hyperoceanic’ climate, which means we are affected by the ocean currents but also by mainland North America. On many occasions I have seen weather go from sunny and 26 C one day to rain, drizzle and fog and 11 C the next day. We could have two straight weeks of fog and rain – in the middle of June. Spring can bring wild temperature swings and precipitation. Instead of a gradual warming leading up to summer, it in
seems more like a long period of temperatures consistently at 10 C and then a smack in the face when summer arrives one morning and it reaches 20 C. In the summer months, we still have cool evenings even when the days are warm, which can be a small problem for plant growth. Oh and did I mention the wind? Make sure your plants have some sort of a windbreak or you may lose them all together. All in all, a very different climate than where I grew up in Southern Ontario!

Something else that makes heritage peonies different is their size – they grow both up and out. I
have divided this peony three times in three years to keep it from overtaking the front of my house.  It grows much taller than my other newer peonies. If I don’t stake it, it will fall to the ground with that tidal wave look I mentioned earlier.  Yes, I also learned about staking through my visits at the botanical garden – what a great idea! No more tidal wave peony. The reason
(I am told) that newer peonies don’t grow as tall or spread as much is that we “young” gardeners don’t want to deal with dividing plants and staking. Apparently we want “hassle free” gardening. But don’t believe everything you hear, I wouldn’t trade my heritage peony for any other peony in any modern plant nursery.

One last problem that we contend with in Newfoundland is our soil. Most of the island of Newfoundland has naturally acidic soil – great for rhododendrons and azaleas, but not so great for peonies. The low pH affects nutrient availability, which can restrict the growth of most plants.
For plants to thrive there is one solution: add lime, then add lime and then add some more lime!
But what is the best thing about heritage peonies? They have grown here for over a century and
so are accustomed to our soil and our climate, making it (relatively) easy on a new gardener like myself.

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