Q: We recently moved to Prescott from South Dakota, where we had a yard full of peonies. Inasmuch as we are now living in a beautiful, friendly town, I miss our peonies. Can we grow them here?
– Ardell and Bob, Prescott.
A: As Henry Mitchell, American writer (1923-1993) said, “The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.
Peonies are outrageously beautiful in bloom, with lush foliage all summer long. These perennials may live longer than you do — some have been known to thrive for 100 years. The plants require little maintenance as long as they are planted properly and establish themselves; they do not respond well to transplanting.
Peonies take your breath away every spring and the rules for success are simply full sun and well-drained soil. Peonies even relish cold winters, because they need chilling for bud formation.
Peonies make fine sentinels lining walkways and a lovely low hedge. After its stunning bloom, the peony’s bushy clump of handsome glossy green leaves lasts all summer, and then turns purplish or gold in the fall, as stately and dignified as any shrub.
Grow peonies in deep, fertile, humus-rich, moist soil that drains well. Soil pH should be neutral.
• The soil will benefit from the addition of organic material in the planting hole. If the soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost. Incorporate about 1 cup of bonemeal into the soil.
• Peonies are not fussy but choose your location wisely as they resent disturbance. Provide shelter from strong winds. Plant away from trees or shrubs as peonies don’t like to compete for food and moisture. Space them three to four feet apart for good air circulation.
• Peonies like full sun, and though they can manage with half a day, they bloom best in a sunny spot.
• Peonies are usually sold as bare-root tubers with three to five eyes, divisions of a 3- or 4-year-old plant.
• Plant peonies in the fall: in late September and October in most of the country, and even later in the South. (If you must move an established plant, this is the time.)
• Peonies should be settled into place before the first hard frost. Spring-planted peonies just don’t do as well, experts agree; they generally lag about a year behind those planted in the fall.
• Dig a generous-sized hole, about two feet deep and two feet across in well-drained soil in a sunny spot.
• Set the root so the eyes face upward on top of the firmed soil, placing the root just 2 inches below the soil surface.
• Water thoroughly.
Tip: Don’t plant too deep! In most of the country, the peony’s eyes (buds) should be no deeper than 1½ to 2 inches below the soil line!
Like children, young peonies take time to develop. They usually need a few years to establish themselves, bloom and grow. Peonies thrive on benign neglect. Unlike most perennials, they don’t need to be dug and divided.
•Spare the fertilizer. Work the soil well before you plant, mixing in a little fertilizer, and that should be enough.
The time to apply fertilizer (bonemeal, compost or well-rotted manure) is early summer, after the peonies have bloomed and you have deadheaded. Don’t fertilize more than every few years.
•Help the stems. If peonies have any structural weakness, it is their stems, which are sometimes not strong enough to support their gigantic blossoms. Consider some sort of support ring allowing the plant to grow through the center of the ring.
•Deadhead peony blossoms as soon as they begin to fade, cutting to a strong leaf so that the stem doesn’t stick out of the foliage. Cut the foliage to the ground in the fall to avoid any overwintering disease.
•Don’t smother peonies with mulch. Cover VERY loosely with pine needles or shredded bark. Remove mulch in the spring.
Peonies are generally very hardy. They are prone to Verticillium wilt, ringspot virus, tip blight, stem rot, Botrytis blight, left blotch, Japanese beetle and nematodes. Many gardeners wonder why so many ants crawl on the peony buds. They are eating nectar in exchange for attacking bud-eating pests. Never spray the ants; they’re helping you nurture peonies to bloom.
Peonies make wonderful cut flowers, lasting more than a week. For best results, cut long stems when the buds are still fairly tight.
“Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the corner and proceed to worship.”
– Alice Harding, The Book of the Peony.
Just for your information – Trader Joe’s carries Peonies – not sure when they will be arriving, but you can bet that I will be one of the first through the door to gather up bunches and take to the office and enjoy.
Remember to tune in to YCCA’s Hammer Time every Saturday and Sunday morning 7 a.m. on KQNA 1130 AM/99.9 FM or the web kqna.com. Listen to Sandy to Mike talk about the construction industry and meet your local community partners.