Peonies. Maybe you’ve never heard of them. Maybe your grandmother grew them. But if you don’t have them in your landscape or flower garden, take another look. They bloom for just a few weeks in spring, but oh, what flowers! Big, round, sumptuous balls of wide petals in so many shades of red, rose, pink and white, with a beguiling sweet fragrance. They rule the garden, and they make wonderful cut flowers, too.
Perhaps best of all, deer don’t bother them. And peonies are beautiful plants when they’re not in bloom—their bushy form and masses of rich green leaves make an elegant backdrop for other flowers. Although peonies die back to the ground each fall, during the growing season they have the presence of compact shrubs in the garden. There is a woody-stemmed form called the tree peony—it produces truly massive, show-stopping blossoms—but the more common type is easier to grow and use in flower gardens and landscapes, and very beautiful.
Some peonies have many-petaled ball-like flowers; others have a single row of wide petals that form a bowl with a cluster of golden stamens in the center. Still others are flatter and saucer shaped. But all of them are lovely.
Besides their beauty and deer resistance, peonies are really easy to grow. They adapt to many kinds of soil, they’re seldom bothered by pests and they don’t need to be fussed over. At the end of the season, when the plants start to brown, just cut the stems back to a few inches from the ground. Peonies live a long time; you will probably have to plant them only once.
The key to success with peonies is to not plant them too deeply. The crown of the plant, where the roots meet the stem, should be no more than 1 or 2 inches below the soil surface. If you plant too deep they probably won’t bloom, even when the plants appear perfectly healthy. Once in place, peonies can stay there for years…or generations. They don’t like to be moved, so plant them where you’ll want them to stay.
The only care peonies need is a spring feeding of all-purpose plant food—ideally organic—and some compost gently worked into the soil around them in spring. The large flowerheads are heavy and may weigh down the stems, especially during rain, so it’s wise to stake the stems. Better yet, set a peony support (it looks like a metal grid on legs) over them as they begin to grow; the stems will grow through the grid and be held up by it.
To use peonies as cut flowers, cut the stems when the buds are just beginning to open, and let them unfold in the vase. They are beautiful in the garden, but even more delightful close up.
If you notice ants crawling over your peonies don’t worry—they’re not doing any damage. They are attracted by a syrupy liquid on the buds. Just shake off the ants before bringing the cut flowers indoors. And then enjoy these most beautiful and carefree of flowers.