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Peony Lesson

November 24, 2009

Peony bloom at Kew Gardens (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)For many years, peonies were flowers that I admired  but had no particular interest in growing. Then, a few years ago, my friend Atsuko brought me a vase of cut peonies from her garden – two stems, each with one open flower and several buds in various stages of development. These flowers lasted for weeks as each bud opened in turn, and they filled my house with the most wonderful fragrance. I was hooked; I had to have peonies in my garden, if only so that I could cut them and bring their glorious scent into the house each summer.

When I designed the new fence border in my garden, part of my motivation was to create a flower bed in full sun with plenty of space for growing peonies. I even had sources of free plants, since both my mother and my friend Joyce had peonies that needed to be divided. But there was a problem; I was intimidated by peonies. There seemed to be so many stringent rules for dividing and planting them: Peonies will live in your garden for decades, so be sure you site them carefully. You must divide them in fall. Be absolutely sure that the eyes are no more than 2” below the surface of the soil or they won’t bloom. etc., etc., etc. I read descriptions of how to divide peonies, but experience had taught me that I didn’t do very well interpreting such written directions. Several years ago, I divided some bearded irises for my mother and had so much trouble identifying the eyes that the irises I planted in her garden didn’t bloom the following year, but the ones I had left in a pile by the trash barrel did! My experience dividing my mother’s ‘Casablanca’ lily (see My Mother’s Lily), did nothing to increase my confidence.

So, even though she assured me that dividing peonies wasn’t that difficult and that the eyes were really obvious,  I begged my friend Joyce, who is a Master Gardener, for a peony lesson. One sunny afternoon in October, we met in her back garden, where she already had a peony plant lifted out of the ground and resting in a shallow container of water (which kept the roots hydrated and also washed away the soil so that we could see what we were doing).  First, she cut off the stems about 6” above the roots to make the plant easier to handle. Then, she showed me how she uses little individually wrapped alcohol wipes to clean her tools and reduce the chance of infecting the plants. We used a variety of garden tools, including a sharp knife and garden shears, to divide the plant into three segments, each with about 5 eyes. One of these segments went into a plastic bag to go home with me, and the next day I planted it in my garden (digging a big hole with plenty of room for the peony roots and being sure to keep those precious eyes just beneath the soil surface).

Encouraged by this experience, I set aside a few hours the following week to divide the three peonies that were growing beside the back walkway at my mother’s mobile home. These plants came with the house and, as far as I know, they were neither fertilized nor divided during the sixteen years my mother lived there. So it’s probably not surprising that they were not as vigorous as the peony I had learned on. They didn’t have as many eyes and, when I lifted them out of the ground, they fell apart into smaller pieces, each with 3 or fewer eyes. I set aside four of the larger divisions and replanted the rest. When I got back home the next day, I planted two of the peony divisions in my fence border and potted up the remaining two for my sister-in-law.

Normally at this point, I would be obsessing about what I might have done wrong and whether these plants would survive and bloom. But, thanks to my peony lesson, I am feeling confident that both my sister-in-law and I can look forward to wonderful, fragrant peonies in our gardens and in our vases.

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2009 8:16 am

    Thank you for the lesson! I am especially fond of the single peony ‘Krinkled White,’ with its giant blooms. This was planted in my garden this year, so I only got to enjoy one flower. I can’t wait until I have a vase full.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 9:35 am

      Liisa, is ‘Krinkled White’ fragrant? I love simple flowers the best and so find the single peonies most beautiful to look at. But all the peonies I’ve encountered with a really wonderful fragrance have been the big extravagant doubles; and those are what I currently have planted. I have a feeling I’m going to have more space for peonies when I develop new gardens in the front of the house in the coming years, so I’ll have to look for some singles, including ‘Krinkled White,’ then.

  2. November 24, 2009 9:18 am

    Jean..what an awesome post! I enjoyed reading how you came to love peonies.. and how your friend assisted you..fantastic! My mother loves peonies and she grows fabulous ones every year..woah..the size of blooms is outstanding! and yes they are easy to get hooked on!!yay..thanks for sharing this technique and your lesson …I feel armed with knowledge now! Great post!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 9:37 am

      Thanks, Kiki. Now that I’ve gotten past my previous peony panic, I have a feeling there will be more peonies in my future. 🙂

  3. Nell Jean permalink
    November 24, 2009 9:56 am

    This is a great lesson on dividing perennials. Who would have thought to use individual alcohol wipes on cutting blades? Or does everybody but me know about that?

    Whatever in my garden causes you envy, remember that I cannot grow peonies, even though I’ve seriously considered emptying the ice maker bucket on them daily through the early spring, just to see.

    My mother grew peonies, great heads of mauve, pink and white. We used to take them to the cemetery in early May to decorate once the graves were shorn of any early weeds, and the mounds set perfectly — conventions of another era.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 11:05 am

      Nell, the alcohol wipe idea was new to me, too, but it’s so clever; my friend Joyce just keeps a few packs of them in the pocket of her gardening clothes.
      Regarding my plant envy: I admit that I wouldn’t want to trade some of my cool-loving plants like delphinium and peonies for your warm-loving plants like agapanthus. I used to say that my idea of heaven was Maine without black flies. I guess I’d amend that now to say that heaven would be Maine without black flies and with the ability to also grow zone 6 and 7 plants. 🙂

  4. November 24, 2009 11:09 am

    Hi Jean,
    I’ve been catching up with your blog posts, and must admit that I, too, tend to be pretty obsessive with whatever I set my mind to, and that certainly includes gardening. I’ve used alcohol for my rose secateurs and other tools, but not with peonies. It is sound advice. I do miss growing them, although I had only a couple small clumps in my Chicago garden. Still, they are a uniquely evocative plant, the fragrance and the flower form.
    Wishing you a lovely Turkey Day! Alice

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 12:19 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Alice. I have a feeling that “gardener” may be an officially recognized synonym for “obsessive.” The alcohol wipes idea was new to me, but I’m always happy to learn from wiser, more experienced gardeners.

  5. November 24, 2009 12:34 pm

    Hello Jean,

    What a wonderful story and filled with great information. Unfortunately, Peonies do not grow here in the desert. I will look forward to seeing your Peonies next year. Since they are off to such a great start, I am sure they will be beautiful!

  6. November 24, 2009 12:49 pm

    Oh I’m so jealous you can grow peonies! It’s just not the right climate where I live. I only get to enjoy them for about two weeks in May when the floral shops have them here!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 1:53 pm

      Noelle and Sarah, Thank you both for reminding me of the benefits of cold-climate gardening. I may have a long dormant season (Nov.-April) and I may have difficulty getting those morning glories to bloom before frost hits them, but I can grow peonies (and delphinium)!

  7. November 24, 2009 1:01 pm

    What a wonderful post! I don’t have any peonies but sure do plan to weave a couple in during my winter planning this year. This has been so helpful – thank you!

    Wish I had a Joyce master gardener friend! Maybe we could trade contractor for master gardener friend – ha.

    Look forward to seeing your peony blooms next spring!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 1:58 pm

      I love the idea of trading the services of friends and family. Do we have to consult them, or can we just tell them where they’re assigned to go and what they are assigned to do? If your contractor comes with a truck, even better! (My little Toyota definitely has limits in what I can haul around in the trunk.)

  8. November 24, 2009 1:20 pm

    Those alcohol wipes might be my favourite part of this post!

    I can’t provide good enough air circulation in my tiny garden to grow peonies successfully. Mine always turned black with botrytis, just as the buds began to show promise. So, unfortunately, peonies are not in my garden.

    However, I know that well-planted peonies can thrive on neglect. My sister rescued a big, healthy ‘Festiva Maxima’ from an abandoned farmhouse near her country place. It hadn’t been staked or tended or fertilized in decades. Still flowered like crazy in its original spot, and now having settled in at my sisters is doing the same there.

    I also favour the single varieties, but the new inter-species hybrids can give you the more fluffy forms without the tendency to flop.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 2:05 pm

      Helen, the air circulation problem is why I had to wait until I could dig a new flower bed to put in peonies. I knew it was a bad idea (although a tempting one) to just try to squeeze them into existing beds. In the new border, I’ve tried to allow a 3′ diameter space for each peony, and I’m hoping that will be enough to avoid botrytis. Of course, if we have another cool, wet summer like this year, where all kinds of plants (including maple trees) suffered from fungal infections, all bets are off.
      Regarding flopping, I just thought that was a given with peonies. And around here, it seems to be some kind of law of nature that as soon as the peonies bloom, we have several days of heavy rain! I’ll get some sturdy peony hoops and hope for the best.

  9. November 24, 2009 6:16 pm

    My parents have several peony plants originally planted by my great aunt many years ago. They have never been divided. They must be over 50 years old. My Aunt Mary loved them and I would love to add a division to my garden but have never built up the courage to try it.

    Perhaps I will practice on the two plants already here in my garden. Thanks for the lesson!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 6:29 pm

      My master gardener friend recommended doing this considerably later in the fall than I would have expected — in October, after there had been frost and the foliage had started to die back. I think the eyes are more prominent then. And, since peonies are very cold hardy, they only need a few weeks to get settled before the ground freezes. Go for it!

  10. November 24, 2009 7:08 pm

    Great post!! I am also intimidated by them, I planted 2 and moved 1 this summer and have No Idea if I got the depth right. I guess time will tell. 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 7:46 pm

      Rebecca, I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one to suffer from peony intimidation. The impression I got from my friend Joyce is that you can’t really plant them too shallow; it’s fine to have the eyes barely covered with soil. And, since the sign of planting them too deep is that you get foliage but no flowers, if that happens, I suppose you could just dig them up next fall and replant them less deep. We can compare notes next June and see how our peonies worked out.

  11. November 24, 2009 7:27 pm

    I love, love peonies. The were the very first flower that I was aware of as a child. My birthday is in June and my grandmother would always tie the first peony to flower on my gift. I do not know if I should tell you that I am contemplating building a Peony Walk at Kilbourne Grove. I am still mulling it over in my mind, but I think that it would be beautiful. I have the old fashioned doubles that are so gorgeous, but have also purchased a few singles, they hold up better in the garden, but the doubles are so much nicer in a vase.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 7:48 pm

      Deborah, I love the image of that peony bloom tied to your birthday gift each year. I also love the idea of a peony walk. Is this the next project after your lime walk?

  12. November 24, 2009 8:33 pm

    Loved your post about the peonies. Good luck on all blooming beautifully next spring.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 9:09 pm

      Thanks, Mary Delle. I’d love to do a post next June with photos of my gorgeous peony blooms!

  13. November 24, 2009 8:45 pm

    I am just jealous. Not a chance of seeing a peony bloom in my garden.

    I have used the alcohol wipes to clean my blades when I am slicing bulbs for propagation. It is important that tools be clean, and alcohol or bleach will do the trick. I often use the antibacterial wipes to wipe my bulbs down before they are cut. I use a 10% bleach solution in a spray bottle for cleaning shears between rose bushes, or any other kind of shrub, that you are going from one to the next, to the next.

    This is an excellent post, Jean. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 24, 2009 9:21 pm

      Janie, Thanks for sharing the advice on cleaning tools. I think I’ve had some bad habits in the past, and I’ve probably just been lucky not to have serious disease problems. It’s good to have more knowledgeable gardeners, like you and my friend Joyce, to share their wisdom.

  14. November 25, 2009 9:45 am

    I love peonies too! They are a must in my yard. After my husband’s grandparents passed away, I brought the peonies from their yard to ours. I think of them every time I see or smell them. The blooms often grace the table for the Memorial Day family meal.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 25, 2009 3:25 pm

      Peonies seem to be plants that are particularly likely to be passed on from one generation to the next, perhaps because they are both long-lived and so evocative. Thanks for sharing your peony story.

  15. November 25, 2009 3:40 pm

    That was very interesting. I can only grow the old fashioned double red Paeony because my soil is too light. My plant does need dividing so I have made notes on your lesson for future reference!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 25, 2009 3:55 pm

      I’m having holiday dinner tomorrow with my master gardener friend Joyce, and I am looking forward to telling her how helpful people found her peony lesson (as interpreted by me).

  16. November 26, 2009 11:00 pm

    I have to agree. Peonies are just awesome! Thanks for the informative post. One of the things I like about them is that they are usually shared plants that live for a very long time. Most of mine are from friend’s gardens which makes me think of them whenever they bloom.

    • Jean permalink*
      November 27, 2009 9:23 pm

      Teresa, It’s been really interesting to hear how often peonies are shared between friends or passed down from one generation to the next. This, along with their long lives and their fragrance, is part of what makes them so special to gardeners.

  17. November 27, 2009 9:00 pm

    There were peonies growing on the property of the house I grew up in. The house was built in the 1880’s, and the peonies had been there for many years before we moved in when I was a child. Years later, the house was torn down and two duplexes were built on the land. Amazingly, the peonies were still a feature in the backyard of those houses. For all I know, they may still be growing!

    • Jean permalink*
      November 27, 2009 9:24 pm

      Thanks for sharing this story, Deb. I’m beginning to realize that their long lives mean that peonies are plants with history.

  18. January 5, 2010 11:58 pm

    I just came back to read and reread this post, and I’m still intimidated. 😦 I *really* want to add the spectacular ‘Bowl of Beauty’ and ‘Festiva Maxima’, but want to make sure I get this planting depth thing right first. We keep our beds pretty heavily mulched, I wonder if that factors into depth?

    • Jean permalink*
      January 6, 2010 10:14 pm

      Rebecca, I worried about this issue, too, and I don’t know the answer. The mulch probably isn’t included in the depth, but I avoided mulching directly on top of my peonies just in case. We get lots of snow cover here to protect from freeze/thaw cycles (as I imagine you do, too), and peonies are hardy to zones 2-3 and really don’t need to be protected from cold.
      Here are some suggestions for dealing with your intimidation:
      (1) Take a deep breath and don’t worry about it. Being planted too deep won’t kill the peonies; the worst case scenario is that they’ll get foliage but no blooms. If that happens, you can just lift the plants out and replant them at a shallower depth.
      (2) Are you getting plants locally? If so, you might ask the person you’re getting them from the question about mulch.
      (3) If you are buying plants that are in pots (rather than bare-root divisions), you should be able to just plant them the way you would any other potted seedling.
      Let me know how you make out.

      • January 6, 2010 11:02 pm

        Thanks so much for your calming words Jean, I will buy potted plants, which will make things easier. I wonder if they self adjust somewhat with time? I’m quite sure I was told the peonies I purchased last year may not bloom (well or at all) for 1-3 years, so it takes some time to know if they are properly planted. But they are oh so lovely and low maintenance once established.

        I will let you know what happens with them. 🙂 Rebecca

  19. June 15, 2010 8:47 pm

    How lucky you were to have your friend give you this lesson. Thanks so much for passing it on. I had always been under the impression that you couldn’t really divide peonies!

    So nice to know.

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