By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru
When people hear the word peony, they most often think back to the garden of their grandmother or great-grandmother.
Peonies have been around for generations because they are reliable, winter-hardy, quick-growing perennials with one of the most favoured flowers. These easy care perennials provide a garden with a sweet scented blast of late spring or early summer colour.
These deer resistant plants are now available in a variety of colours, including many shades of pink, as well as new shades like red, crimson, and yellow to the old traditional white and cream-coloured flowers.
Originally native to southern Europe and China, peonies have become very adaptable to Canada’s climate. Plants have been known to last in gardens for more than 50 years.
Two of my varieties were established from my grandmother’s original plants.
Since they are drought-resistant, peonies can tolerate well-drained soils and can be planted in areas that do not get a lot of moisture, like under the eaves of houses or the rear area of a property.
Peonies have reddish stems and dark green leaves. Mature plants can take the look of a shrub and can develop into three- to six-foot plants in clumps almost as wide. They are appealing in the garden even without their flowers and often are used along property edges.
Peonies are extremely long-lived plants lasting up to 50-70 years, so once you get them planted correctly, you will enjoy them for years and years. And they are content to grow in the same location for decades, provided they receive proper nourishment.
Light fertilization with a bulb fertilizer (like a 10-20-20) at plant emergence in the spring, and again in the summer after bloom.
The main thing is to keep the nitrogen content low. Too much nitrogen causes lots of foliage growth, but doesn’t encourage bloom, so try not to overdo it.
Peonies need full to part sun (minimum of six hours per day), average moisture, and well-drained soil that is enriched with compost or other organic material annually. Because they like a hot location in the full sun, make sure they receive ample water and do not get too dried out when flower buds are developing.
You may have to supplement moisture with regular watering in order to have the most and showiest flowers.
After flowering and for the rest of the season, however, they are quite tolerant to dry conditions.
Peony crowns have buds which we often call “eyes,” and what can look like pinkish roots sticking straight up. When planting, be careful to not touch or bump them because they break and bruise easily.
Set the roots so that the tips of those eyes are about one inch (2.5 cm) below the finished surface of the soil and pointing upwards. Carefully check to see that the crown, where the “eyes” of the plant emerge from, is no more than 1.5-two inches (2.5-five cm) below the surrounding grade.
If it is planted too deeply, pull the soil covering the crown back to that depth.
(Gardening Guru tip: If you are dividing and replanting or transplanting from a pot, make sure you place the plant in the soil at the same level it was planted before dividing or in the pot. This will help the plant re-establish itself better).
If you plant peonies too shallowly in cold weather climates, the crown risks being damaged by winter weather. Any deeper and the plant will spend valuable growing time reaching the right depth rather than producing flowers.
Plants are unlikely to flower the first spring after planting, but they should flower every year after that. After plants take a few years to mature, they become prolific bloomers.
A peony covered in blooms can get very heavy, so I recommend a strong support system. The options are endless, with either homemade or commercial cages and support systems.
What you use is up to personal preference, but be sure to adjust the height of the system every few years as the plants become more mature and larger each year.
Why peony buds are not opening:
The most common reason buds fail to open in our area is due to a frost or chill at the wrong time for that variety.
A sudden chill at a later stage of development can damage just the inner flower parts, but not the outer parts. This will allow the buds to swell, but the interior tissue to fail and not develop properly.
Peonies can be frustrating because some years they can do terrific and other years they do nothing.
Meanwhile, continue to water and fertilize—and wait until next year.
This is a common problem for peonies in certain climates, especially where a cool, damp spring can encourage this fungus.
Botrytis is a grey mold, which is a fungus, and should be treated with copper sulfate or other fungicides such as fungicidal soap.
To prevent Botrytis, allow for air circulation around the plant and destroy the foliage after fall freezes to reduce the possibility of disease.
Botrytis causes a fuzzy gray coating on the flowers and often kills the buds. It thrives in humid conditions, and can be avoided or minimized by making sure the peony is planted where it receives lots of sun and has good air circulation.
Once the disease is noticed, it is too late to save the buds for that season. Diseased areas should be removed.
Too much water while the flower buds are developing may cause them to wilt and die, just like too little water.
Try to keep the soil evenly moist and make sure the peony is planted in well-drained soil.
I have some of the newest varieties mixed in with some of my grandmother’s plants that I have had for more than 15 years, in a bed totally dedicated to peonies.
When guests visit my garden during peony season, they immediately are drawn to this flower bed because it gets more and more spectacular every year.
This will be the fifth summer for the older plants I moved with me from Fort Frances. They were huge last year so I cannot wait for this year.
I encourage you to visit your local nursery to see the varieties of peonies available. This is a perennial plant that will last for years, and is worth far more than its initial cost.