Tips to help peonies last a lifetime
In today's "Growing Together" column, Don Kinzler offers advice to enjoy the long-lived flowers.
Did you hear about the guy who enrolled in the patience seminar? He couldn’t wait for it to begin.
Patience is a great virtue in gardening, and instant gratification is rare. Instead, we wait months for seeds to sprout into buttery-gold sweetcorn and for flowers to blossom with perfection. All well worth the wait.
Although it takes peonies about four years from the time of planting until they yield a nice display of flowers, they can last a lifetime. Peonies hold the record for being the longest-lived perennial flower in the region, with century-old plants still blooming profusely on homesteads planted by area pioneers.
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The following are tips for enjoying long-lived peonies.
- Garden centers offer container-grown peonies for planting in spring and early summer. Mail-order nurseries that specialize in peonies can be found online, with bare-root plants typically available in September, which is the traditional time for digging and dividing existing peonies.
- Strong peony divisions should contain at least three to five “eyes,” which are the pink or whitish buds visible in the chunky roots.
- Proper planting depth is vital, since peonies seldom bloom if planted too deeply. When properly planted, the uppermost eye should be 1.5 inches below soil surface.
- Locate peonies in at least six to eight hours of direct sunshine, and give each plant at least a 3-foot diameter footprint of space.
- Peonies don’t like poorly drained soil. If necessary, mound the planting area slightly, and amend soil with peat moss, compost or manure.
- Remove flower buds for the first two years, so plant energy is directed into healthy root and shoot establishment.
- Peonies are heavy feeders. Apply 2 heaping tablespoons of 10-10-10 granular fertilizer around each plant in June, keeping it away from stems, and watering to dissolve.
- If planted in a row, peonies can create an informal hedge effect, a backdrop for annual flowers or a border along a driveway or property line. Peonies can substitute for low-growing shrubs where snow may be a problem because the tops are removed in the fall.
- Peony plants commonly flop over. Install tomato-type cages in spring as plants emerge. Search for newer varieties that list strong stems as an attribute, so flopping is less problematic.
- Because of their long-lived nature, peonies are among the perennials that create a backbone of the perennial garden, along with iris, day lilies, lilies and others.
- Peonies can remain in place for decades. If they’re flowering well, there’s no need to dig and divide. If the center of the clump eventually becomes void of stems, dig and replant in September, using healthy divisions from the clump’s perimeter.
- Because peonies are long-lived, their original planting location can easily become too shaded over time, as surrounding trees grow immensely over decades. If flowering diminishes, move to a new sunny location.
- Peony foliage is susceptible to whitish-gray powdery mildew fungus disease, which greatly diminishes its otherwise pretty, glossy foliage. Prevent by applying an all-purpose fungicide, following label instructions, while the foliage is still healthy. Planting in an area of increased air circulation makes powdery mildew less common.
- Keep grass from encroaching by using herbicides that selectively kill only grass, such as Ortho’s Grass-B-Gon or Bonide’s Grass Beater. Can be sprayed directly over the peony plant, following label directions.
- Besides the old-fashioned herbaceous or garden peony, there are the fernleaf peony, tree peony and newer hybrids between peony species, like the Itoh varieties. Timing of planting and division are similar between all.
- Peony tops are best removed after several frosts in the fall by cutting just above ground level, and disposing for sanitation.
- Peonies fail to bloom satisfactorily for several reasons, including being planted too deeply, shading, diseases such as botrytis and insects such as thrips.
- Ants aren’t needed for blossoms to open normally; they’re simply attracted to the sweet sap.
- Pronunciation is a personal preference between PEE'-uh-nee and pee-OH'-nee, although Webster favors the first.
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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-241-5707.