HOW TO GROW HERBACEOUS PEONIES
They’re great for the cutting garden, says Anne
WHEN picked and sold at the ‘marshmallow’ stage, peony flowers are at their most alluring as the tight buds soften and split to reveal the petal colour inside. These are among the most romantic of cut flowers and are popular for weddings, conjuring up an English garden idyll of early summer. Buying a bunch or two when they are in season won’t break the bank, but why not design a cutting border including peonies, so you can gather your own?
Now’s the time to look around for a tired border and make space for something colourful, fun and productive. Other flowers for cutting could include sweet peas, lily of the valley, ‘Café au Lait’ dahlias and phlox. Clear, prune, weed and condition soil with well-rotted compost and the area will be ready for planting in spring. Size is not an issue, but while flowers for cutting will grow in containers, peonies prefer the open ground.
Herbaceous peonies are a good investment as they can live for more than 100 years, and their blooms, opening from May to June, have a vase-life potentially twice that of roses. Growth dies back to a tuberous rootstock in winter and emerges again in spring, the new stems initially a glowing red. Plants reach around 3ft (1m) tall and later, produce good autumn tints.
For cutting, choose generous, longstemmed cultivars and set the plants at least 3-4ft (1-1.2m) apart. You can’t go wrong with the fragrant, double pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, which is the darling of the cut-flower industry, but you might want to widen the range. Allow plants to settle and grow for three years before taking more than the odd stem, and remember to leave at least three lower leaves behind for the plant.
To prevent flower stems from drooping, push herbaceous plant supports in early, so the peonies can grow through them.
My peony plants have almost died back for winter, but I check them to make sure leaves and mulch are not piled over the crowns Double pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (Paeonia lactiflora) is the darling of the cut-flower industry Gather peonies at the marshmallow bud stage or slightly more open during the cool of early morning or evening. Place straight into a bucket of water and trim the ends under water.
A tight peony bud starting to soften and split