Peter Cundall: Tips for growing the beautiful blooms
Tassie’s cool climate is perfect for growing peony roses, according to gardening guru Peter Cundall, as long as they’re planted in perfectly-drained, enriched soil with exposure to full sunlight
Iremember visiting a small farm in the hills surrounding Deloraine in 1955. The garden was located in one of the coldest, frostiest parts of Tasmania.
And that November day I was blown away by thousands of healthy, vigorous herbaceous peonies, all in full bloom. Some were almost waist high and of a kind rarely seen in gardens these days, original species from which most modern cultivated forms have been bred.
Despite the bitterly-cold winter weather, the elderly lady who owned the farm told me her peonies had been virtually ignored and hardly ever watered since they had been grown from seed 50 years earlier.
The only nourishment received was an annual dressing of pulverised cow manure and the clumps had never been lifted, dug around or divided. This is a remarkable characteristic of all the peonies, including the even more flamboyant “tree” peonies. All adore plenty of winter cold.
And clearly they thrived in the perfectly-drained, chocolate soil of
That November day I was blown away by thousands of healthy, vigorous herbaceous peonies, all in full bloom
Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground each autumn then emerge in early spring with enormous vigour. Some shrubby forms of so-called “tree” peonies actually flower in late winter, but most are in bloom right now. By Christmas most have already lost this initial energy and start to look a bit exhausted and miserable.
Around the middle of April herbaceous peonies will have virtually disappeared, apart from a few withered leaves covering the soil.
Down below, however, is where the main, living parts of these tough plants still lie, as massive, deeply-probing carrotlike roots. They become bloated with stored carbohydrates, ready for the spring flush.
The most common complaint about peonies is failure to flower. And in almost every case this is due to insufficient light. These plants need full sunlight. Older clumps gradually stop flowering over the years when overshadowed by larger
shrubs or trees. Failure is rarely due to overcrowding, although dividing old clumps every few years can produce bigger and better flowers. That’s a job to be carried out around mid-May, just as peonies are about to enter winter dormancy.
By then, new growth buds will have formed at the base of dead leaf stalks. If old clumps can be lifted and divided while still retaining most huge roots the new divisions may even flower again the following spring. Most newly-purchased herbaceous peonies are fairly small, which means it can take several years for plants to begin flowering.
Growing peonies from seed is difficult – especially shrubby varieties, although some yellow-flowering species are easier. This resistance to quick germination is why “tree” peonies are so expensive. Most are grafted on to herbaceous peony roots and then planted deeply, to encourage scions to form additional roots so the original nurse roots eventually wither away.
After flowering, most peonies form pods containing bean-like seeds. As these pods mature and start to split, the seeds begin to dry off. Once this occurs, the seeds become locked into a form of dormancy which is difficult to break.
However, if peony seeds can be sown – always into seedling-raising mixture – while still moist and sticky, just as pods mature, germination often occurs before dormancy locks in. Even then, this germination happens almost reluctantly.
Many peony seeds simply send down a root during the first growing season with nothing showing above the surface for a year. This is when many disappointed and impatient gardeners mistakenly throw out punnets of partly-germinated seedlings.
In the end, the most reliable of all are divisions purchased from specialist growers. Potted plants are available at some garden centres, some already in bloom, but they aren’t cheap.
Better to wait until the end of the growing season for healthy divisions to become available. Just keep in mind, all peonies need is perfectly-drained, enriched soil and full sunlight.
And the resulting blooms – perfect for cutting – are not only worth waiting for, but once flowering begins it gets bigger and better every spring for decades to come.