The big beautiful blossoms last a long time, and don’t require much in the way of specialized attention to achieve.
I love the old flowers, those with a history. Peonies qualify. The Chinese have cultivated them for more than 2,000 years.
I love the easy-to-tend plants, the kind you don’t have to baby, or spray, or divide every couple of years. That’s peonies for you. Put them in a sunny spot and they’ll survive perfectly happily left to their own devices. Nothing much in the way of disease or insects bothers them. The ants crawling all over their buds aren’t hurting the flowers. They’re just quaffing the sweet secretions the buds exude. The huge pink, red or white blooms that emerge won’t be chewed.
True, you’ll need to support the bloom stalks if you want to show the flowers off in your garden. (I pick most of mine instead, and fill vase after vase with them.) During the bloom season, you’ll want to walk around your garden after a rain and shake the water out of the flower heads. You can remove side buds if you want to. That’s supposed to make that terminal bloom bigger, though I’ve never disbudded mine, and the terminal flowers are plenty big enough, four inches across at least.
I love plants that last forever, or as close to forever as any mortal needs. Peonies do. I’ve never bought a peony root in my life. I’ve seen them sold in containers at nurseries, but they’re fairly expensive. Once I relocated the peonies that were growing in my yard when I bought this place – in the shade none of them bloomed – and discovered they were all pink, I thought about buying one or two: a white one, like those down the road, and a red one, like those in my Great Aunt Mary’s flower garden in Vermont.
Then, two summers ago, a neighbor gave me a couple of bushel baskets of peonies he’d had to dig up. They’d been in the path of a drain line that had to be replaced. Unfortunately, he couldn’t postpone the digging, which occurred at the worst possible time for the peonies: just after they had bloomed, when the weather was turning hot and dry. Because grass had grown into the peony clumps, he’d misjudged where the roots were and sliced through many of them. The chance that many would survive was not good.
Normally, I would not have planted them where I did, in my sun-challenged front yard. The one thing I have learned about peonies is that they need full sun. And although their lovely rosy-tinged foliage pushes out of the soil in early spring and persists until frost, you do not grow peonies for their foliage. You grow them for their luxuriant flowers.
Nonetheless, I planted the roots in the front yard for the reason that they would be staring me in the face every time I stepped out the door. Two of my rain barrels were within 10 feet of the spot I chose for them; it would require only a few minutes to minister to them whenever they needed it. True, I would need to move those that survived to sunnier spots in a few years. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
I’ll reach that bridge with the healthiest clumps this fall. Peonies should be dug and divided between September 15 and November 1. I’ll prepare the soil as carefully as I did two summers ago. That’s what you really need to do for peonies: Spade and amend the soil in which you will plant them, then keep it moderately moist while they establish themselves. Don’t remove the foliage until after it has been killed by frost: those leaves are producing the food that the roots will store for next year’s foliage and blooms. Fortunately, peonies accept a wide range of soil types – clay to sand – though it must be well drained. What they can’t do without though is a spell of winter cold, which they must go through to break dormancy. That’s all.
I’ve been amazed at how many of my damaged roots survived. The books had warned that root division – recommended for every five to eight years, although I wouldn’t divide roots that are still producing copious foliage and flowers – is a severe operation; done at the wrong time, it retards the plants’ ability to recover for years (recovery is recorded in lots of foliage and most especially in blooms). Yet the very first spring after I’d planted those poor peonies, up they came. One even produced a single pink bloom. This spring the healthiest clumps were studded with buds. Give me a tough old plant like a peony any time.
How to Plant a Peony
1) Choose a sunny spot where the soil is well drained. Spade to a depth of 12-24 inches; work in some well-rotted manure. Peonies prefer a slightly acid soil; if yours is very acid, work in a little lime.
2) Set the roots so that the “eyes” (the buds at the top of the root) are 1-2 inches below the top of the ground. Keep the soil moderately moist.
3) Stake with peony rings to keep the blooms from flopping over (optional).
4) Remove dead foliage at the end of the growing season, to keep plants healthy.
5) If your plants fail to bloom after several seasons, add a trowel full of balanced plant fertilizer around the clump in early spring and again after flowering.