Long Live Peonies!
If these scented, showy flowers are kept happy and healthy, plants may bloom for 100 years or more with a little attention, says Adrienne Wild
Outliving the average person, it’s no wonder that granny’s favourite peony can become a family heirloom. Often referred to as ‘queens of the garden’, herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) make impressive bushy plants with luxuriant leaves and sumptuous, thick, ruffled blooms, which not only last for decades but also always play a starring role in the garden.
Their peak flowering season is in late May and early June, with the show lasting for about six weeks. But they also demand attention as soon as their wrinkled, wine-red shoots emerge from the soil in spring and long after their flowers fade, when the leaves go on to provide a backdrop for later-blooming perennials.
As the season progresses, perennials add more interest to fading borders when the leathery leaves turn from green to yellow in late August, then autumn shades of red or orange, finally shrivelling to brown before dropping off.
If the weather is cool, individual plants will pack a punch for about two weeks. For maximum impact, select several varieties that will produce flowers to coincide with tulip displays.
Traditionally plants are available in autumn, as barerooted specimens consisting of several fleshy roots and a crown of at least three pink buds or ‘eyes’. These freshly dug plants get off to a better start than any that are dug in spring, as the soil is still warm and there is no risk of the plants becoming dry at the roots in the coming months. Bare-rooted plants must always be planted as soon as possible, so if there’s to be a delay, wrap the roots in moist newspaper, place it in a ventilated plastic bag and keep out of sunlight. If prolonged weather conditions are not suitable for planting, then consider buying containergrown plants, which can be planted at any time of year.
Peonies thrive in rich, loamy, well-drained soil – most prefer it neutral to slightly alkaline – and a sheltered spot that receives full sun in the morning with some afternoon shade. It’s important to keep them as a permanent fixture in a flower bed and give them space to mature as these tough, winterhardy and drought-resistant plants can reach a height and spread of 90cm.
When planting, dig a generous hole deep enough to accommodate the roots and so that the growth tips sit about 4cm below the surface of the soil. Burying them too deep or covering the crown with a thick layer of mulch spells disaster, as plants will subsequently fail to bloom! Water well after planting and if it doesn’t rain,
keep the soil reasonably moist until the first frost.
Newly planted peonies will bloom in the first year but it usually takes at least two seasons before they become fully productive. With the right care you will soon have a prized specimen with plump, fully charged roots that can be divided and passed on to friends and family.
A good head start
The heavy, flamboyant flower heads, which can be up to 20cm in diameter, are best supported with a cage made from pea sticks or wire to keep them upright. This needs to be put into position early in the season so the foliage will camouflage the cage.
Peonies make great cut flowers, but for the biggest blooms, you need to debud the side shoots in April. But always leave around a third of the flowers on the plant so that they grow and nourish the roots for the rest of the season.
If you notice a reduction in the productivity of an old plant, you may need to dig it up and divide it. You can split a large clump into three to five pieces, each with healthy buds, and share these with friends. These new plants will take about three years to flower but give a lifetime of pleasure.
By mid November, you will need to cut down to the ground all the dying foliage on established plants and dispose of it in the dustbin. Any botrytis cinerea fungal spores that are left behind may lead to peony wilt, which will cause the new-season buds to look mouldy and the stems to sag.
In severe winter weather, a thick layer of straw will help insulate the roots. Keep the soil around peonies weed-free and, in spring sprinkle a handful of Growmore fertiliser around the root zone to give plants a boost.
You’ll soon find that peonies are very addictive plants. Once you’ve got one in your garden, you always crave more!