Peonies Are Poppin'!

FUN TIP: Got a whole lot of peonies blooming all at once? If you’ve got plenty of peonies and would like to extend your enjoyment of their blossoms, my friend Susan Handford gave me a little tip that I’m excited to try this year: Refrigerate some of those blossoms just as they’re starting to open! Cut them just as if you were putting in a vase but wrap those cut ends in a damp paper towel and put in a paper bag inside your fridge. When your current cut peonies are ready for the compost bin, you’ll have another bouquet or two left! They key is to cut while they’re just starting to open, not when they’re still tight buds.

As a devoted, longtime gardener, I tend to lean more toward perennials than annuals as the main materials I work with in my Dublin gardens. I love the sheer variety of perennials on the market, the ability to divide and share favorite plants and the anticipation of what’s going to be blooming next.

Annuals I mostly reserve for containers on my porches, urns as accents in the perennial gardens and my new cutting garden I’m just giving a whirl this year. The problem with perennials, though, is their short bloom time.

Most perennial plants and shrubs have a solid week of flowering and they’re done for the season. Editing your selections for a succession of blooms over the growing season is the key and just as I’m saying goodbye to the lilacs, the bridal wreath spirea and the false indigo, I’m saying hello to an all-time favorite: the peony.

Peonies are about as old-fashioned as garden plants get. In fact, individual peony plants can last for generations if left in a happy spot, requiring little care other than their initial planting depth. This is key.

If you’re planting a bare root peony, only bury the root 2 to 3 inches in the soil with the “eyes” facing up. If you’re planting a potted peony, plant it even with the soil level of the pot. Buried too deep, a peony will still produce plenty of foliage but few, if any, blooms.

Peonies need at least six hours of full sun every day and even longer is better. They like a cold winter and slightly acidic soil that’s not too wet or clay-like. Other than that, the only thing our beautiful peonies might require is a peony hoop to support the stems holding those big balls of beauty that are their blooms.

And what gorgeous blooms they are. In my opinion, peonies are one of the most romantic bloomers there are. A mature plant can produce up to 30 big cabbage-like, beautifully scented blossoms in a range of colors from pure white to pink to the deepest of reds.

Peony bloom types range from single to anemone to semi-double to double and bomb double blossoms. I’ve got a decent range of all of them, leaning more toward the double and bomb double.

The more petals you’ve got means the heavier the blossoms will be and the more likely you’ll need hoops to support them. I stopped using hoops in my peony garden when I realized that the sheer volume of plants I’ve got in the stone oval provided almost enough support for them, shoulder-to-shoulder.

As is so likely to happen, just as the blooms are reaching peak, we’ll get a strong thunderstorm and the heavy rains will send some of those blossoms down to the ground. These are usually the ones I snip and use to create a couple good flushes of blooms in vases around the house. The scent is lovely; not quite as strong as the lilacs I bring in, but you know those peonies are there when you enter the room.

Last fall I planted a tree peony, “Paeonia suffruticosa Xue Liann.” I’ve never tried a true tree peony before. I’ve got a semi-herbaceous variety that almost dies to the ground like its more common herbaceous cousins and it produces lovely light-yellow blossoms around the same time all the other peonies are blooming.

True tree peonies require a little more patience and mine’s just in its first season so I’m not expecting any blooms this year. When it does, though, they look gorgeous: papery white petals surrounding a deep purple center.

Actual small trees, I saw several years ago when I visited White Flower Farm in Connecticut. True to their origins, they’ve got a very Asian feel to them, almost bonsai-like in their cragginess.

Anyways, can’t wait to see how my young tree matures over time. I’ve only got a slight gnawing fear that I may have actually planted it too shallowly. Its bare root came with an orange strip tied around its ideal planting depth which now is about 2 inches above the ground’s surface. We shall see.

Finally, a word about those black ants all over the peony buds. No, it’s not some symbiotic relationship between plant and insect. Ants are just naturally drawn to the delicate sap the buds secrete. The buds would still open beautifully without a single ant present.

It’s just a treat for the ants… kind of like a trip for ice cream over to Kimball’s!