For the longest flowering season of peonies, think beyond the typical pink and white

For the longest flowering season of peonies, think beyond the typical pink and white

“The garden began in orange,” Kathleen Gagan said that day, as if to speak of a summer bed of daylilies or lilies, or perhaps one of the marigolds.

The subject, though, was peonies—specifically, acres and acres of herbaceous garden cultivars familiar in envy peonyGagan’s nursery in Bernardsville, NJ, where white and shades of pink prevail for several weeks in spring, is far from the whole story.

In the 16 years since she opened the nursery, her clients often start conversations by telling her they only want pink and white flowers. “And only three-foot-tall peonies in large, plump flower shapes,” she said.

In other words, the perfect peony.

“I always tell them, ‘Take one step, or two, outside your comfort zone,'” she said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, someone who called her nursery using a coherent, provocative tone would advocate a bit of audacity. It does, especially when it comes to suggesting that we refuse to settle for a week or so of delight that a solitary peony cultivar offers.

“We wait a whole year for peony season—and brides are happy, mothers are happy and teachers get bouquets of flowers—and then. Her voice lingers, as if the thought of missing a moment of peonies was unimaginable,” she said.

Add a few varieties of peonies specially selected for their flowering times, and nearly a month’s worth of tall, sun-loving, herbaceous Paeonia lactiflora and its hybrids becomes possible.

Your weed season can start with coral-colored hybrids, and if you get lost in crosses made of tree peonies—in a cross of peonies—it can end with a flash of yellow, another unexpected color.

Peonies with a little garden wisdom remind us that all those close-ups of the eye-candy flower in catalogs often make us forget: Don’t decide on appearance alone when you’re browsing the shows within a genus. Think “early, middle, and late” and incorporate some of each into your extended garden display. (This is a good tip, too, for ordering this fall’s daffodils, or daylilies.)

What do you want from peonies? Whether it’s the simplicity of Krinkled White, with its single blooms and bold yellow centers, or the crazy trio of pink, white, and pink that is Sorbet—two very different mid-season picks—there’s a flower shape for every taste.

But fall, when bare peonies are sold, is the time to make a decision. It’s also when we need to do something about peonies that aren’t doing well. As frost approaches, we plant new arrivals or divide and plant those who need a fresh start.

One possible reason: young people. The roots of recently planted peonies, including those that you dig, divide and transplant, will not fill the garden with flowers next spring. Perhaps not until one then, said Ms. Gagan, who has opened seven acres of display gardens in a nursery to visitors from late April through early June, and holds workshops in September.

You may not even get a large growth above ground, because the division – made by yourself or purchased – is stabilizing.

“The first year is all about the root,” she said. “Year two is all about photography. Year three is all about flowers. Yes, it takes three springs.”

Peonies require winter cold to flower. When they grow but do not bloom well, the problem is often that they are planted too deep. If the eyes—those pink growing tips—are too far underground, they may not be receiving the winter cold they need.

Planting them two inches deep is fine in New England or Alaska, Gagan said. In New Jersey, it only goes down an inch. Half an inch is plenty in the southern extension of their growing group, in zone 8, where the early flowering varieties fare best.

“People tell me I planted it just right. I was really careful,” Mrs. Gagan said. “So I ask if they cover their garden with brushes, and of course the answer is yes.”

Oops. It does not cover peonies.

Another culprit when blooming is trivial: insufficient sunlight. In this case, the plant may be light on foliage as well. Tall herbaceous lactifloras and their hybrids need full day sun. Old gardens, where shrubs and trees grew to shade nearby perennials, watched this kind of decline.

Although you won’t be placing the roots very deep, work in plenty of compost to prepare a large hole. (Ms. Gagan suggests a cubic foot per root.) When given a sunny spot with good drainage, these plants will last a lifetime. So don’t skimp — and don’t bother with fertilizer.

“We don’t fertilize at all,” Ms. Gagan said. Spread the compost around the plants’ drip line when the garden is cut in the fall and again in the spring—but not over the crowns themselves.

Watch newly planted peonies rooted for the first winter, said Mrs. Gagan, in case they sway during fluctuations in temperature, and need to return indoors.

Do we really need to give support to our tall grass peonies? When this common question is asked, Lady Gagan calls Dawn Hollingsworth, founder of Hollingsworth Beyonce who has been a leading breeder for more than half a century.

“He used to call them ‘carpet peonies,’ because unless they were supported, they were on the floor,” she said.

Not a pretty picture; point taken.

You might get away with it with early bloomers, which generally feature lighter blooms, including those orange moment Coral Charm, Coral Supreme, Coral Sunset, and more. But even heavy rain can trample them.

Most peonies need support, unless you’re cutting all the flower stalks to get bouquets—and it’s okay to harvest every last one. Mrs. Gagan advised to leave at least a third of the foliage on the plant.

Another way to extend peony season, or at least flower arrangement season: Cut the flowers when the buds crack to show the first hint of color. Then place the stems in the water and refrigerate them for up to three weeks or so, gradually taking some to enjoy.

“Even if you only have one plant, you can enjoy it for a month this way,” said Mrs. Gaghan.

In nursery production fields, peonies are planted in rows, with poles at either end. The curtain tie-back, made of heavyweight twill, is pulled from one pole to the next, and is placed “at the knees and buttocks, and sometimes on their shoulders, to hold in beautifully,” she said.

In garden borders, use peony rings with mesh-like surfaces—the largest available diameter, at least 18 inches—through which the stems will grow.

Don’t wait until spring, when the plant appears, to put the support in place. Instead, when you make graduated cuts, leave an inch of the old stem to mark each plant, Mrs. Gagan said, with the ring placed over a seed. (Shake the wound away, a critical step in preventing winter fungal diseases.)

Come spring, as the plant reaches about 2 feet in height and begins to sprout, push the legs of the metal support firmly into the soil at the edges of the ring you placed over the dormant plant in fall. Then lift the loop and attach it to the legs. Putting the legs on the loop is the work of two people: one is holding the loop while the other is doing the tying.

Mrs. Gagan’s advice: “The ring never leaves your garden.” That way, you won’t forget about it until it’s too late.

Caring for your livelihood acres of peonies means setting and following these guidelines – watching carefully for any signs of trouble and responding quickly.

“If it breaks, fix it,” said Mrs. Gagan. “If there is a lot of shade, move it. If it has a disease, send the pictures to the diagnostic lab at the local extension, then treat accordingly.”

Too many peonies, too little space? Perhaps the hardest part is choosing. With hybridization, the predominantly pink and white Lactiflora range has been expanded to include crosses that produce bright coral, red and yellow flowers, adding genetics from other species and prolonging flowering time.

You can explore early blooming fern species, which got their name (and very narrow foliage) from Paeonia tenuifolia. It is shorter in stature with bright red single flowers, suitable even for a rock garden.

You can catch anemone-shaped blooms like the pale pink Do Tell or the purple sword dance, which are light on the full-size outer guard petals but heavy on the feathery petal powder puffs in the center.

Or perhaps the most flattering: the flowers you’ll want to bury your nose in – varieties with “intense fragrance,” as Mrs. Gagan calls them. In some cultivars, the scent has been sacrificed in breeding for stronger stems or early blooms, but this is not the case with the rich pink Edulis Superba, the white Amalia Olson or Mrs. Frank Beach. Each one is distinct and delicious.

There is another bonus for the gardener. No matter which thousands of named species of peonies you choose, they will not attract deer and rabbits. Like daffodils and iris, Lady Gagan grows side by side with peonies in the nursery – not for sale, but for pure pleasure – it is rarely damaged.

Apparently, these herbivores don’t know a thing well when they see it (or smell it).


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast way to gardenAnd a book of the same name.

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