Hello Fellow Readers,
Fall is an ideal time to plant peonies. Not to say you can’t install them in the spring. But fall-planted peony will more quickly establish and flower sooner; some say a year before.
We adore peonies for their magnificent sweet fragrance and palm-size flowers in early summer. And plants often live for a hundred years which is remarkable. While their blooms are short-lived, only a week or two, the array of colors and types of flowers are extraordinary. Plus, their course dark green foliage plays a welcome role in the garden after they bloom. That is until some become riddled with fungus late in the season.
There are three kinds of peony. There are the herbaceous ones that die to the ground each year, such as Paeonia lactiflora (zones 3–8) that were planted by the previous owners. They’re floppers due to the heaviness of their blooms, so it’s best to cage them with those wire thingies often used for tomatoes. And, it seems they almost always bloom during rainy spells making the flowers “musciad” – my garden term for soggy and unsightly (pronounced moo-SHYAAD).
There’s the shrub-like Tree Peony (Paeonia suffruticosa zones 4–9) that grows to six feet. I adore their woody structure which keeps them from flopping. They are on the pricey side and often small when you buy them. Like all peony, they take a while to establish. As the adage goes, the first year they sleep the second they creep and the third they leap.
You’ll need to be careful with snow when shoveling as Tree Peony stems can easily break (isn’t that right, my love?). And, pruning them is a no-no unless you need to cut out dead wood or shape them, only right after they bloom.
Growing in popularity is the hybrid of the tree, and herbaceous peony called an Itoh Peony after Toichi Itoh who was the first to hybridize them successfully in the late 1940s. They’re also known as intersectional hybrids. Like herbaceous peony, they grow about three feet tall and wide, but bloom longer and have more flowers. And, like tree peony, they don’t flop plus they’re less likely to succumb to fungus.
Fall is also the time to divide or move herbaceous or Itoh peonies. Just as the foliage begins to look ratty, in late summer or early fall, cut them close to the ground. Dispose of the foliage beyond the garden or compost pile to prevent spreading disease. Carefully dig all around the plant at least fifteen inches from the center. The roots will be brittle, so be careful when lifting the root ball out of the ground.
If you’re dividing, rinse the roots thoroughly and wrap them in a damp towel overnight to soften, making the roots easier to cut. Using a heavy-duty knife, make divides being sure each clump has three to five eyes (the reddish buds that will become stems) and enough roots. Plant your division or transplant right away, being sure the eyes are 1.5 to two inches beneath the soil. Divided peony will grow to mirror the mother plant unlike seeds harvested from your peony.
I’ve read there’s no reason to move or divide peonies unless they are getting too large for the garden or if you wish to make more plants. However, a recent article in Horticulture Magazine claims by dividing peony, it “will rejuvenate them and improve flowering in the future.” That would be after about three years… after sleeping and creeping. Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com
A workaround of the ant dilemma: Some are dismayed by the ants drawn to the sweetness of peony buds. They do not harm, nor do they play a role in opening the bud to flower, unlike the old wives’ tale to help some feel better about the not-so-creepy crawly critters.
Florists cut stems just before buds are about to unfurl – when the color of the flower starts to show, and the bud feels soft like a marshmallow. Ants are easy to see and shake off before putting stems in water to bloom inside. I rattle the cut flowers to knock off wandering ants before bringing a bouquet of these lovelies inside. What’s a few ants here and there anyway.
If ants are overtaking your patio click through to a previous column titled Ants be Gone