Posted 20th Mar 2017
Gardening expert Kate Gould provides an overview of the Peony
Every English garden deserves at least one beautiful Peony to grace its borders in our opinion. Some may hold back from choosing a Peony because of the relatively short flowering season. Many believe that the peony is a difficult plant to grow, best left to experienced gardeners but both concerns are invalid, the peony is unrivalled in the garden when in bloom and it is an excellent low maintenance plant, perfect for all levels of expertise and delivering superb results.
The sheer size of the flower is simply incredible with many of the intersectional peonies producing flowers the size of dinner plates and with colours ranging from white to yellow, pink to purple and everything in between, these flowers are absolutely guaranteed to impress. There are single, semi-double and double flowers all of which are exceptionally beautiful and that is before you look at the many peonies that are fragrant. Most peonies are fragrant, with some more so than others. For example, Peony lactiflora ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ AGM is an exquisite double white flower with a cream centre and the most delightful perfume. There are many others though, a personal favourite being the delicate blush flowers of Peony lactiflora ‘Catharina Fontijn’ which produce a delightful yet intense perfume. There are few other plants that can boast such attributes in terms of size and colour of flower that also have fragrance.
So the peony has scented, impressive and showy flowers and this alone makes it very attractive for the border. What else has this plant to offer? Despite a popularly held view that peonies are delicate and difficult to grow, the truth is that they are very easy to grow and extremely hardy making them perfect for all gardeners, whether beginners or not. They will live happily in a decent sized container for some years but ultimately they will be happier in the ground. There are of course, a few things to remember with peonies but get these right and you are looking at decades (in some cases peonies can live for 60 years) of hassle-free gardening and the finest display of colour and scent that simply gets better with the age of the plant.
Rule number 1: remember not to plant your peony too deeply. The tuberous roots must not be planted more than about 2.5cm below the surface. If they are planted any deeper they may give wonderful foliage (some of the intersectional peonies, such as ‘Bartzella’ AGM or ‘Julia Rose’ have finely cut leaves which turn crimson red in the spring and autumn and many of the herbaceous or garden peonies have strong red stems and light green soft foliage) but they simply will not flower. If you have a peony in the garden and it isn’t flowering, it is probably because it has been planted too deeply or it has been buried when you have diligently mulched your borders. Just wait until the autumn and then, taking care not to damage the buds on the roots, lift your peony and re-plant it at the right depth.
Rule number 2: plant your peony in a sunny position. Although many varieties will tolerate some shade (for example Peony lactiflora ‘White Wings’) if your peony is in heavy shade it will be reluctant to flower well.
Rule number 3: plant your peony in fertile, free draining soil. Peonies are not generally too fussy about the soil and are quite happy in chalky or clay soils provided that it is free draining, they don’t like to sit in water in the winter.
As you can see, the rules really only apply to planting your peony. Once planted your peony will be quite content to be left alone. In fact if you have rich, fertile soil you probably don’t need to feed your peony, but if your soil is not so good a balanced, general fertiliser such as Growmore applied in the spring should do the trick. It is also a good idea to cut back and remove the dead leaves in autumn to avoid peony wilt. Peonies are therefore, relatively low maintenance and reliable performers in the garden. They aren’t going to grow like trifids and take over your garden; most will get to about 80-90cm tall and about 60-80cm wide and of course they will die down in the winter before emerging in the spring to delight you for another season (this does not apply to the tree peonies). In general peonies do not really suffer from pests and diseases, requiring little care or attention once established. In fact the deer and the rabbits leave them alone too which makes them ideal in rural gardens. While we are talking about peonies lets dispel another myth, that peonies don’t like being moved. Subject to rule number 1 above, carefully lift peonies in the autumn and replant or divide them (remember to keep 3-5 buds on each bit of root that you divide and if you are planting them in a container, don’t overwater them). It’s as easy as that, honestly, there is no magic to it.
Peonies take time to mature and you must therefore be patient. This takes time and whilst it may be tempting to purchase a smaller, cheaper plant and wait for it to grow my advice is to buy a well established peony, one that is at least 3-5 years old or more, to be sure of success in your garden.
The show that peonies put on may be relatively short, but my goodness what a show it is. The peony’s hardiness, low maintenance and longevity are reasons in themselves to spark a love affair, but the sheer beauty and fragrance of the flowers make it thunderbolt city for me.
And as if that isn’t enough, peonies are excellent value for money. It is true that they may initially cost a little more than some perennials but their low maintenance requirements, hardiness and decades long lifespan means that the peony is truly well worth the initial cost of the purchase. Remember too that they make fabulous cut flowers, highly sought after by florists for the size and scent of their blooms. Varieties such as Peony lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ AGM or Peony lactiflora ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’ or Peony lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’ AGM are excellent examples with long stems.
The only real drawback is the relatively short flowering period which can easily be overlooked but with careful planting you can get peonies flowering throughout May and into July. Plant peonies lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’ AGM, ‘Bowl of Beauty’ AGM and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ AGM to ensure you have flowers from May to July. Peony lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ AGM is a late flowering variety and will reliably flower into July providing stunning scented double pink flowers.
And then there are the intersectional (or Itoh) peonies. This is where it really gets interesting because these plants are a tree peony and herbaceous peony hybrid; they die down in the winter and emerge again in the spring but they have the large, delicately fragrant flowers similar to a tree peony in the most incredible colours often fading through several shades. Intersectional peonies are still relatively difficult to come by, unusual and highly collectable. Whilst herbaceous peonies often require a little staking or support, the intersectional peonies are shorter (about 75cm) and use a tree peony framework meaning that they do not require support even though the flowers are enormous and, like a herbaceous peony, they are covered in blooms (sometimes 40-50 blooms per plant) and the best bit? The best bit is they flower for longer than the herbaceous peonies, usually for 4-5 weeks. Unique and breath-taking, intersectional peonies are just as hardy as herbaceous peonies and as easy to grow (look at ‘Lollipop’ or ‘Cora Louise’ for dramatic and spectacular examples of intersectional peonies).
Guide courtesy of Kate Gould