Washington State University Extension

Garden Tips


written by Marianne C. Ophardt WSU Extension Faculty for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Weren’t the peonies beautiful this year? I can remember the peonies in my Grandfather’s flower garden. While I adored the fresh cut peonies and liked helping to arrange them in vases, I didn’t like being the one who had to cut them off the plants. That’s because they were covered with ants… and ants made my skin crawl. Despite the ants, peonies are ‘perennial’ favorites that reward us with beautiful blowsy flowers. In my opinion peonies are taken for granted because they don’t need much care and they have few pest problems. These beauties provide large, sometimes fragrant, blooms every spring. The flower colors include the traditional white, pink, dark pink, red, magenta, and maroon, but breeders and collectors efforts have resulted in some very lovely lavender, yellow, apricot, coral, salmon, and even orange flowered peonies. There are two main types, the regular garden peony (Paeonia hybrids) and the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa). The garden peony is a herbaceous perennial that dies back to the the ground in the fall. It grows back from its crown and fleshy roots in the spring. The tree peony is a deciduous shrub that drops its leaves in the fall and regrows from its branches in the spring, just like other hardy deciduous shrubs. There is also a newer type of peony called an ‘intersectional.’ This is just a fancy name for a hybrid peony that’s the result of a cross between a tree peony and a garden peony. The result is an intersectional peony that dies to the ground each fall, but has flowers and leaves similar to that of a tree peony. Where most tree peonies are not hardy in the coldest northern climates, the intersectionals are hardier. There’s also an interesting fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) with fernlike leaves. The fernleaf peony has single or double deep red flowers and the plant is smaller than most garden peonies. Because they’re difficult to propagate, fernleaf peonies are rare and quite expensive. You’ll also find that some of the newest peony cultivars and hybrids can be very expensive, as much as $100 or more per plant! Some Things You Should Know about Garden Peonies Peonies may fail to bloom for several reasons. It takes some new peonies about three years to become fully established and start to bloom, but the wait is worth it. Another common reason for a failure to produce flowers is planting them too deeply. The ‘eyes’ or buds at the ends of the fleshy roots should only be about one to two inches below the soil surface. Too much shade, inadequate fertilization, competition from other plants, and improper watering can also lead to a lack of blooms. Peonies are easy to grow, but there are some basic growing conditions that should be met. Plant them in a sunny location with good drainage. Excess soil moisture or dry soils can lead to problems. Water frequently enough to keep the soil moderately moist. Peony plants don’t need dividing very often, in fact they don’t take kindly to frequent digging and dividing. However, over time their flower production can decline due to crowding. Dig and divide the plants in the fall only if necessary. Because of their heavy flowers, many of the garden peonies will flop over in wind or rain. They will look their best if staked with flower stakes that blend in with the leaves and stems making them practically unnoticeable. Consider staking your peonies if they don’t stand up straight. Also, make sure your plants have plenty of sun and adequate nutrition. Why those bothersome ants? Ants like the sweet syrup secreted by the flower buds. They don’t harm the flowers and aren’t needed for the blooms to open. Cut the flowers just before they open and remove the ants before bringing them indoors.

Published: 6/10/2006 11:14 AM

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