By Steve Smith
I first fell in love with Peonies back in the early 1970s when I was stationed in Petersburg, VA with the Army. I was driving in the country when I came
upon rows of these incredible plants covered with pink, red or white blooms that looked like carnations on steroids. Next to this little farm was a stand filled with buckets of these flowers and a sign that read, “Fresh cut peonies, five dollars a dozen. Put your
money in the Mason jar please, we operate on the honor system”. I paid my five bucks, took my bouquet home, enjoyed it for at least a week and vowed that someday when I had my own place I would grow peonies. It was almost 20 years later before that finally happened.
These peonies are what we call herbaceous perennials and not only do they have spectacular blooms, but many are fragrant as well. They thrive in full sun and hardly ever need to be divided. When they emerge in the spring, I place a “grow through ring” over them to help support the large 4- to 6-inch flowers – an established clump can sport up to 30 flowers. They appreciate adequate water, so mulching in the summer helps to conserve moisture and feeding with an all-purpose organic fertilizer before and after blooming keeps them strong and healthy.
When fall comes along and a hard frost hits, the peonies will die back and should be cut to the ground. It is a good idea to mark where they are in the garden so that when spring arrives you don’t accidentally break off the tender emerging new shoots.
In addition to herbaceous peonies there are also tree peonies, which aren’t actually trees but are more like a woody shrub. They have flowers that come in yellow, orange, purple, red, pink and white, and they can reach 9 to 12 inches in size. The plant grows to a 4 foot by 4 foot woody shrub lacking in form and equally as hard to work into your landscape arrangement but the incredible flowers make it worthwhile.
The best of both worlds are Itoh Peonies. These are hybrids between the herbaceous and tree peonies mentioned earlier. The plants grow 2- to 3-feet tall with sturdy stems that do not need staking, and the flowers are an average between the species, measuring 6 to 9 inches with a good range of colors. The plants develop a woody nature by the end of the season, but need to be cut all the way to the ground before spring. Originally introduced in the late 1960s, recent breeding has brought us many new varieties. Peonies are not cheap, but they are worth the investment – they will last for years and you can pass divisions on to your grandkids.
Itoh’s are the “Yin and Yang” of the peony world rolled into one and with as many as 50 flowers per plant, no gardener will be able to resist these beauties. Now is the time to buy and plant them, while they are still small and easily removed from their containers. Put them in a rich soil with lots of organic fertilizer and compost, since they will be in that same spot for years to come.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org