Southern gardeners have their azaleas, magnolias and camellias, and if you garden in the north you might feel deprived. Don’t, because you too have a plant that rivals and even beats those favorites. They bloom in early summer, heralding those precious warm days that make living through those long winters tolerable. From the moment their shoots first burst from the ground, Peonies captivate, and with very, very little care you can have a world of beauty right in your garden, no matter how cold and bleak it is during the winter months. From late May and all through June, you can enjoy a garden of blooms, on plants that fit into even the smallest spaces. Once blooming is over, they step aside, and make a neat, unobtrusive background for the rest of the season.
If your only experience of Peonies is a neglected old bush with floppy blooms, in a run-down garden, then a whole new world awaits you. These durable, long-lived plants come in an enormous range of forms, from giant flowers with just a few petals surrounding golden centers, to tight pompoms of hundreds of petals. Their colors range from white, through every possible shade of pink, and into deep, velvety reds you will adore. Blush, coral, lavender – only blue is missing. Peonies were enormously popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, so breeders and enthusiasts have left us a legacy of hundreds of varieties to choose from – and not one of them is boring or ugly.
How to Grow Peony Bushes
Peonies are among the easiest of garden plants to grow. Classified as perennials – plants that die back to the ground each winter – their durability and form makes them more like shrubs in their use around the garden. Hardy from zone 3 to zones 8 or 9, it is in the coldest zones, from 3 to 6, that they grow best, and where they are most useful. Disappearing below the ground for shelter, they emerge unscathed, and never miss a year because of an exceptional cold winter, or a late storm. They grow most vigorously in full sun, but if you have a little shade, they will tolerate a few hours of that each day, and in hotter areas they will appreciate some shelter from the sun in the afternoon.
As for soil, just choose a well-drained spot, and enrich it with compost, and your peony will be happy. There is none of that fuss over acid or alkaline soils, or the need for something special – they grow almost anywhere, as their continuing existence in abandoned gardens proves.
Most Peony Bushes grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, so there is room in even the smallest garden for one, and in larger gardens you can plant several, to really get summer off to a great start. Mix them with later-blooming shrubs to give you flowering continuity through the summer, and remember that the foliage is beautiful, even after the blooms are over, so they stay attractive all season.
Spend some time considering exactly where you want your peony to be in your garden. It takes a couple of years for them to establish, and they develop large, extensive root systems. They are hard to move, so try to get it right the first time to get the most from your bush in the shortest possible time.
Planting Peony Bushes
Since they are long-lived, it pays to prepare the soil well before planting. Dig over a large area, about 3 feet around, and dig as deeply as you can, taking out any roots of grass or perennial weeds. Add at least a bucket of garden compost, rooted animal manure if you can find it, or any other kind of organic matter you have – rotted leaves for example. Peat moss is a poor runner-up, but if it is all you have, then use it. Add a fertilizer with plenty of phosphorus in it – that’s the middle number in the formula – bone-meal or super-phosphate is ideal. This gives your plant plenty of long-term nutrients. Plan on mulching each fall, or at least every second year, with more rich organic material – peonies are ‘heavy feeders’, and really benefit from natural foods that give them strength and sturdy flowers stems.
The most important thing to do when you plant is to keep the roots close to the surface. If you plant too deeply it will take several years before you see blooms, so this is important. If you are planting pieces of root, place them with that big bud you see just one-inch below the final surface level. Lay a stick across the hole to make sure you get it right, and firm down the soil underneath the plant so it doesn’t sink deeper when you firm everything down. If you are planting a growing plant in a pot, gently scape away the top layer of soil to see where the shoot meets the root, and place that point one inch below the surface. Don’t neglect this step – it is the single most important thing to do when planting a peony. Once you have placed it correctly, firm down the soil around it, and cover it over. It’s a good idea to place some short sticks around the plant, so that you can see in in spring, or you might accidentally step on the young buds. Water well, and the job is done.
Caring for Peony Bushes
That first year you probably won’t see much activity from your plant. Keep it watered during dry weather, and since these plants rarely suffer from pests or diseases, there is nothing much to do. The first fall, and every fall after that, cut down the stems to an inch above the soil once the leaves have colored and begun to flop. A bonus with peonies is their fall foliage, which is often brilliant reds and oranges. Cover with an inch or two or rich mulch, right over the whole plant and root zone, and everything is done.
The first full year you will not see much action from your plant. Be patient. Some purists will remove any flower buds that first spring, and sometimes they won’t develop properly, but don’t worry, your plant is growing below the ground, building strength. Oh, if you see ants running around on the flower buds, this is normal and not a problem. They are attracted by the sticky gum on the buds – also normal – and some people think that by removing it they help the flowers open easily. This may or may not be true, but they certainly do no harm. Depending on the variety you grow, you might want to place some sticks around it, with a circle of string to hold it up, but for many varieties this is not necessary.
In the second full year of growth you should see more action, with more stems sprouting from the ground, and several nice flowers to give you a taste. In later years your bush will go from strength to strength, and it will need no attention for a decade or more – if ever. These easy and rewarding plants deserve a place in every garden.