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When wandering through flower gardens for the next couple of weeks, the blossoms people are going to see most are peonies. The flowers are big, bright and gorgeous.
Other than cutting a few to bring inside and watering the plants if our pattern of minimal rainfall continues, you can just enjoy them for a few months.
The work can start in late August to mid-September, depending where in Maine you live. After you have divided them or planted new tubers, newly planted and divided peonies want six weeks to settle in before the ground freezes. So exactly when you move them will depend on when the ground is likely to freeze where they are going to be planted.
Peonies come in four basic types: woodland, herbaceous, intersectional and tree.
Woodland peonies bloom first, early May in southern Maine, and they will take a lot more shade than the other types. The one we have was outstanding for a brief time this year, but high winds quickly damaged the blossoms. The foliage looks lush throughout the year, and if you don’t cut the blossoms, the red and dark blue seed pods are attractive throughout the season.
The most common peony type is herbaceous peonies, which die back to the ground at the end of each growing season. Blossoming, depending on the cultivar, will begin about now and continue through early July – with the blooms on each specific cultivar lasting for about a week.
Within herbaceous peonies, there are hundreds of choices. To begin with, the shapes of the flower vary; Peonies can be single with just one layer of petals; Japanese-style blossoms, which are a single with a raised yellow center; rose-shaped; chrysanthemum-shaped; and what is called a bomb, the fullest and most luxuriant of the blossoms. The color of the blossoms ranges from white to pink to a red so deep it’s almost black; you can also find yellow, green and coral. The white, blush and pink blossoms are usually the most fragrant.
Herbaceous peonies have one drawback: because of the lush foliage and huge blossoms, they sometimes flop or the stalks tip over from the weight of the blossoms. If the peonies are in full sun and grow in rich soil with a lot of organic matter, chances are good they will stand up without help. My advice is to do nothing until a specific peony actually flops.
Flamboyant peonies, like this one from Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, will likely grab the garden spotlight in the next month. They make great cut flowers, too. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
When it does, mark it, so that the following year you can install a peony hoop before the plant grows more than a foot tall. The most common hoops have a metal circle on top and three legs that are pushed into the ground at the outer edge of the peony roots. We use a type that has L-shaped pieces, with loops to connect the separate pieces. We use three of these pieces connected on smaller peonies, and more on large ones. And, no sorry, I don’t know where you can buy the L-shaped metal pieces – we’ve had ours for years and the supplier is no longer in business.
Herbaceous peonies, by the way, are not just about the flowers. The foliage turns a nice maroon in the fall, adding a bit of color.
Tree peonies are miniature shrubs, which lose their leaves in the fall but keep their stems. For that reason don’t plant them next to a driveway or in other spots where the stem might get damaged, say, pushed over by a snowplow. They have huge blossoms in many colors. Tree peonies grow slowly and generally do not get more than two feet tall.
The newest member of the peony family are intersectional, also called itoh, peonies, a hybrid created by crossing herbaceous and tree peonies. They have the large, exciting blossoms of tree peonies but they die back to the ground at the end of the season, like herbaceous peonies. When intersectional peonies first came out, they were exorbitantly expensive, but the price has come down a lot in recent years.
The ideal planting season for peonies is late summer or fall, even though nurseries will sell potted peonies throughout the growing season and tubers in the spring. The tubers should have three to five buds on them. Dig a hole about a foot deep mostly to loosen the soil, add compost and refill most of the hole with loosened soil, packing it down so the tuber doesn’t sink. Place the tuber so that the buds will be about two inches below ground level. Peonies planted more deeply will grow foliage, but blossoms will be delayed by several years. You can fertilize peonies lightly when you plant them, but don’t fertilize them more than once every three years.
Peonies do not require dividing for their health as they get larger. Just let them grow. But if they are outgrowing the space you have, or you want to share with friends, late summer to early fall is the time to do it. Once the foliage is beginning to dry out, cut it back so that you can see the dormant buds on the tubers. Use a sharp knife to cut off pieces of the root containing three to five tubers. Replant as described above – or let your friends do it.
To see how peonies progress throughout the season, normally I’d send you to Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm, but their peony events are canceled this year because of the pandemic. Instead you will have to watch the Gilsland peonies progress virtually: maineaudubon.org/gilsland-farm-peony-gardens.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
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