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

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - CONTENTS - with Peter Cun­dall

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

North-West Tas­ma­nia.

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.

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