Around Memorial Day each year you see many colorful clumps of showy peonies in farmyards and gardens. Some of them give off an intoxicating sweet fragrance second only to tea roses. Newer varieties have exotic flower forms but perhaps a less powerful fragrance.
Peonies grow and flower best in full sun, but will still do well with light afternoon shade. They like some organic material and compost in the planting hole to do their best. They should be planted away from large trees or shrubs, and if they are in the middle of the lawn you should maintain a mulch circle around then so that lawn grasses don’t steal their food and water, resulting in smaller flowers.
The most important thing to know when planting peonies is not to plant them too deep. The “eyes” (small points where the new plants will sprout each year) should be almost at the surface when you’re finished or they will grow but not bloom. Loosen the planting soil in an area three feet wide, add compost and bone meal-based fertilizer (Espoma Bulb Tone is our favorite) a foot deep, and then set the plants near the surface on top of the loosened soil. Pine nugget mulch will keep the weeds out and not smother the tubers.
Peonies should be fed in early spring and again after they bloom. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers like Miracle-Gro; too much nitrogen will give you great foliage but not much bloom (and weak, floppy stems). The best food for peonies is bone meal and potash; that’s why we use Espoma Bulb-Tone.
If you remove the flowers as soon as they fade, you’ll get better bloom next year because setting seed reduces next years’ bloom. When the leaves turn brown, cut the stems three inches above ground and discard them. During the dry summer months, Peonies need regular, deep watering. Mulching with pine bark or composted mulch will help keep the soil cool and moist, and control weeds.
Healthy Peonies should be divided every ten or fifteen years. Their roots become old and woody, and infested with borers that eat them hollow from the inside. You’ll also have lots of extra peony plants to spread around your garden or share with friends. Gently cut or pull apart the roots into sections, trim away rotten spots with a sharp, clean knife, and dust the cuts with garden sulfur to discourage disease infection and rot.
Ants on peonies are a totally normal, natural and temporary thing. Peonies produce small amounts of nectar, supposedly to attract ants to help opening their flower buds. Do not try to get rid of the ants on your peonies. Since the ants are harmless, there’s no reason to threaten helpful insects or birds with chemicals.
Once upon a time, when Marjorie and I were still living in New Jersey, my grandmother “Oma” asked me to divide the row of peonies bordering her backyard vegetable garden. These were old-fashioned, tremendously fragrant old varieties; some crimson, some ivory white. These plants were sentimental favorites of mine. When Marjorie and I were dating I took the blooms to work with me and put them in a vase on my desk. Their perfume was a constant reminder of Marjorie, and our dream to someday have our own gardens.
The plants hadn’t been disturbed for perhaps 30 years, so of course they were root-bound. Marjorie and I dug them all up, cut out the rotten tubers and the ones pocked with borer holes, divided them, spaded bone meal into the bed, and replanted. Oma hovered, reminding us countless times not to plant them too deep.
Once the plants were divided there were far more than would fit in the 20 foot row. We installed the leftovers in our own gardens. When we moved to Ohio we dug them up and brought them with us. The peonies thrived here, and every Memorial Day they reward us with a great show. Just a few blooms in a vase perfume our entire downstairs, so we shake off the ants as best we can and bring some inside. What’s a few ants scampering around the dining room table, when you can enjoy the intoxicating scent?
A few years ago we built a raised bed for them, divided them again, and re-planted them in a special soil mix of pine fines and peat moss. They have thrived, and continue to furnish fragrant bouquets during the late spring around Memorial Day. Their sweet fragrance triggers lots of memories.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.