By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Few perennial flowers compare to the bloom and fragrance of peonies in the spring garden. Many new varieties arrived this week at the garden center; so exciting that they inspired this week’s column.
Peonies bloom in late spring, May through July. I find that they transplant best in early spring when planted by mature roots, which are what arrived this week at the nursery. For the most part, planting peonies is pretty straight forward. However, there are a few special needs unique to peonies, and best accommodated at planting time. In particular, the choice of where and how deep to plant them.
How to Plant Peonies – Peonies are best planted by mature roots that are at least two years old. A plant this mature will often bloom right in our grower’s pot. Peony roots should contain at least 3 eyes, possibly more depending on the variety. Peony eyes, similar to the eyes of potatoes, are small reddish buds that eventually become flowering stems. This week’s delivery of peony plants are covered with eyes!
The reason for the rule of 3 eyes on each plant is to be sure that the tuber is large and strong enough to survive and bloom within a couple of years. A root with only 1 or 2 eyes will still grow, but it takes longer to mature enough to flower. Peonies have to be from 2-4 years old to bloom. Tree peonies need 7-10 years before blooming. All the more reason to know your plant retailer and the quality of plants it carries. Watters only offers peony plants that are of blooming age and ready to show off this spring.
Site – Peonies live and thrive for decades in Northern Arizona, so plant them where you think you’d like them to be for a L-O-N-G time. Peonies like sun and need at least 6 hours of sun each day; a full day of sun is even better. Without sufficient sunlight, you’re going to set fewer blooms and have smaller flowers. Plus, your plants will stand a serious chance of developing fungal diseases.
Soil – Peonies are very adaptable. They are Javelina resistant and drought hardy, but they prefer a well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Many of us have gardens of heavy clay soil. If planting in clay soil amend the planting bed with Watters Premium Mulch before planting. This premium grade compost aerates the soil which allows roots to form quickly while increasing drainage; both of which help a new peony adapt to its new garden. Because peonies can remain in the same spot for upwards of 70 years, taking the time to prepare the soil before planting is time well spent.
Depth – Peonies like a good chill in the winter. In order to set their flower buds, peony roots should be planted relatively close to the soil’s surface. It may feel odd to leave roots exposed, but peonies actually need this chilling to attain dormancy and set buds. Leave the top of the root ball exposed to the elements, just as you see it in the grower’s pot. Your peony will be happier and bloom better for years to come.
Insider Tip – Be sure you don’t bury your peonies too deeply when adding mulch to your garden. Remember, they like access to our cool mountain air.
Space – Give each peony plant enough space to grow to maturity without being crowded. Each plant needs a space of about a 3′ diameter for best health. Planted too closely together and denied air flow between plants, peonies become prone to gray mold.
You shouldn’t need to divide your peonies for many years. In fact, peonies dislike being disturbed and often don’t bloom for 2 or 3 years after being divided. However, if your peonies are growing well in good conditions but still aren’t flowering as they should, it could mean that it’s time to lift and divide them. Use a sharp tool to divide the roots into sections with 3-5 eyes each and replant ASAP. Follow the same steps for transplanting as for planting initially.
This beautiful spring weather makes this the perfect time to plant a new peony. Of the many varieties we’ve just received, most are in full inspirational bloom. All have been grown for this weekend’s 57th Spring Open House.
Experienced gardeners and those just starting out will delight in brand-new, first-time-ever plants, plus gifts, prizes, specials, and a chance to hang out with other people that think it’s awesome to get their hands dirty growing their own flowers and vegetables. It will be fun, so join us!
Until next week, I’ll be celebrating spring with other gardeners here at Watters Garden Center.