Passionate About Peonies

The peonies in my garden will soon be out of control and I love it! This spectacular display comes only once a year, but it’s so worth the wait. I am not concerned about our mild winter. As temperatures drop in late fall, peonies go dormant regardless of how little snow is on the ground.
Peonies are an early groundbreaker, producing reddish shoots, usually at the beginning of April. The plants are tall, ranging from 1 to 5 feet high. Their branching stems produce glossy deep green leaves that taper to a point at each end. Each leaf grows up to 5 inches long.

Hundreds of varieties of peonies have been developed over the centuries, yet most share a common origin and fairly similar characteristics. Most are hybrids of the two original species: Paeonia Officinalis and Paeonia Lactiflora. The most popular are the Paeonia Officinalis . This species produces creeping roots that help the plant to spread, giving it a lush “bush” effect. There are many options: double peonies are more fragrant than singles, for example, and pinks and whites tend to be more fragrant than reds. At my home in Westport, Rosebrook Gardens, the collection of Festiva Maxima and Edulis Superba offer a powerful kick to the garden. They are mindblowing to look at and so fragrant that you can’t help but stop and smell these flowers.

How to Grow Peonies
The peony’s short season as a garden flower — three to six weeks — adds to the plant’s allure. My office window overlooks 22 peonies, all planted more than a decade ago. Back then, I paid $15 for each plant, on sale. They were one of my best purchases. Ten years later the flowers’ beauty and fragrance continue to inspire me.

Did you know
The peony originated in Asia, where it has had a major influence on decorative patterns for the home and wardrobe.

For the best results, plant peonies in full sun. Although they will tolerate some afternoon shade, go with more light rather than less. Peonies are easy to grow in most soil conditions but will benefit from a little organic material and compost when they are planted. They are hardy from USDA Zone 8 to Zone 2, making them perfect for a Connecticut gardener.

The best time to plant peonies (and find the best deals) is September and October when the flowers are spent and the nurseries are looking to reduce their inventory. This is true for most perennials, as planting them in the early fall gives them the much-needed time to become established and go dormant for winter.

To get more flowers from each plant, snip off the smallest bud if there are more than two buds on a stalk. This gives more energy to the larger buds, creating a more spectacular flower. Don’t even consider saving the snipped buds if they are smaller than a nickel, but if any are a little bit bigger, place them in a bud vase. It takes some time but most will bloom.

After the flowers on your plant have bloomed, remove them as soon as they begin to fade. This will prevent seeds from developing. Then wait until late fall to cut back foliage to 3 inches above the ground. If you need to transplant or divide your peonies, do this only when the plant is well-established. Peonies usually don’t need to be divided for 10 to 15 years. You get many years of enjoyment from a plant with not much work. You have to love that.

When to pick the flowers
When several petals have begun to emerge, select the buds that feel like a soft marshmallow when you squeeze them. Picking is best done in the early morning or in the evening. The light is less direct then, the air is cooler and plants are regaining their water and carbohydrate balance. Good to know, right?

Pick the flowers, but be sure to share them with the people you love.

Last year I did something new when I tied the peonies in my garden back with a beautiful nylon ribbon. This added a splash of color – a creative alternative to garden twine. The lavender tieback I used helped each plant stay upright and supported so it wouldn’t break.

And there you have it.