“The garden starts orange,” Kathleen Gagan was saying the other day, sounding as if she were talking about a summertime bed of daylilies or lilies, or maybe one of marigolds.
The subject, though, was peonies — specifically, the acres and acres of the familiar herbaceous garden varieties at Peony’s Envy, Gagan’s nursery in Bernardsville, New Jersey, where white and shades of pink predominate for several weeks in the spring but are far from the whole story.
In the 16 years since she opened the nursery, her customers have often begun conversations by telling her that they want only pink and white blossoms. “And only 3-foot-tall peonies with big, full flower forms,” she said.
In other words, the quintessential peonies.
“I always tell them, ‘Take one step, or two, outside your comfort zone,’” she said.
Maybe it’s not surprising that someone who named her nursery using a provocative homophone would advocate a bit of daring. She does, particularly when it comes to suggesting that we refuse to settle for the week or so of delight that a solitary peony cultivar offers.
“We wait a whole year for peony season — and brides rejoice and moms are happy and teachers get bouquets of flowers — and then …,” she said, her voice trailing off, as if the very idea of missing any moment of peony potential was unthinkable.
Add a few peony varieties chosen specifically for their flowering times, and nearly a month of tall, sun-loving herbaceous Paeonia lactiflora and its hybrids becomes possible.
Your herbaceous season could begin with the coral-colored hybrids, and, if you stray into crosses made with tree peonies — into the intersectional or Itoh peonies — it could end in a flash of yellow, another unexpected color.
Peonies remind us of a bit of garden wisdom that all those eye-candy flower close-ups in catalogs often make us forget: Don’t decide on looks alone when you’re paging through the offerings within a genus. Think “early, midseason and late” and incorporate some of each for an extended garden showing. (That’s sound advice, as well, for ordering daffodils this fall, or daylilies.)
What do you want from a peony? Whether it’s the simplicity of Krinkled White, with its single flowers and bold yellow centers, or the crazy triple-decker of pink-white-pink that is Sorbet — two very different midseason selections — there is a flower form for every taste.
But fall, when bare-root peonies are sold, is decision time. It’s also when we need to do something about the peonies that aren’t performing well. As frost approaches, we plant our new arrivals or divide and transplant those in need of a fresh start.
So your peonies didn’t bloom much?
One possible reason: youth. Recently planted peony roots, including those you dig, divide and replant, won’t fill the garden with flowers next spring. And maybe not even the one after, said Gagan, who opens the 7 acres of display gardens at her nursery to visitors from late April through early June, and holds September workshops.
You may not even get substantial aboveground growth, because the division — made yourself, or bought — is settling in.
“The first year is all about the root,” she said. “The second year is all about the shoot. The third year is all about the flowers. Yes, it takes three springs.”
Peonies require winter chill to flower. When they grow but don’t bloom well, the problem is often that they’ve been planted too deep. If the eyes — those pink, growing tips — are too far underground, they may not receive the winter chill they need.
In New England or Alaska, Gagan said, planting them 2 inches deep is fine. In New Jersey, she goes just 1 inch down. A half-inch is plenty at the southern reach of their growing range, in Zone 8, where early blooming cultivars fare best.
“People tell me: ‘I planted it exactly right. I was really careful,’” Gagan said. “And so I ask if they mulch their garden, and of course the answer is yes.”
Oops. She doesn’t mulch the peonies.
Another culprit when blooming is paltry: insufficient sunlight. In that case, the plant may be light on foliage, too. The tall herbaceous lactifloras and their hybrids need full-day sun. Older gardens, where shrubs and trees have grown to shade nearby perennials, see this version of decline. Although you won’t actually place the roots very deep, work in plenty of compost to prepare a generous hole. (Gagan suggests 1 cubic foot for each root.) When these plants are given a sunny spot with good drainage, they’ll last a lifetime. So don’t skimp — and don’t bother with fertilizer.
“We don’t fertilize at all,” Gagan said. Compost is spread around the drip line of the plants when the garden is cut down in the fall and again in the spring — but not over the crowns themselves.
Keep an eye on newly planted peony roots that first winter, in case they heave during temperature swings, Gagan said, and need tucking back in.
Flowers that flop
Do we really need to provide support for our tall herbaceous peonies? When this common question is raised, Gagan invokes Don Hollingsworth, founder of Hollingsworth Peonies, who has been a leading breeder for more than a half-century.
“He used to call them ‘carpet peonies,’” she said, “because unless they were supported, they were on the ground.”
Not a pretty picture; point taken.
You may get away with that with the early bloomers, which generally have lighter-weight flowers, including that orange moment from Coral Charm, Coral Supreme, Coral Sunset and others. But even they can be trampled by a heavy rain.
Most peonies need support, unless you’re cutting all the flower stems for bouquets — and it’s fine to harvest every last one. Just leave at least one-third of the foliage on the plant, Gagan advised.
Another way to stretch peony season, or at least flower-arrangement season: Cut the flowers when the buds are just cracking open and showing their first hint of color. Then stand the stems in water and refrigerate them for up to three weeks or so, gradually taking some out to enjoy. “Even if you only have one plant, you can enjoy it for a month that way,” Gagan said.
In her nursery’s production fields, peonies are grown in rows, with posts at either end. Curtain-binding tape made of heavyweight cotton twill is stretched from post to post, positioned “at their knees and hips, and sometimes at their shoulders, to hold them upright beautifully,” she said.
In a garden border, use peony rings with gridlike tops — the largest diameter available, at least 18 inches — that the stems will grow through.
Don’t wait until spring, when the plant is emerging, to put the support in place. Instead, when you’re doing fall cutbacks, leave 1 inch of the old stem to mark each plant, Gagan said, placing the ring over the stubs. (Throw the cut stems away, a critical step in preventing overwintering fungal disease.)
Come spring, as the plant reaches about 2 feet high and starts to bud, push the legs of the metal support securely into the soil at the edges of the ring that you laid atop the sleeping plant in the fall. Then lift the ring up and attach it to the legs. Putting the legs on the ring is a two-person job: One person holds the ring while the other does the attaching.
Gagan’s advice: “The ring never leaves your garden.” That way, you won’t forget it until it’s too late.
Looking after acres of peonies that are your livelihood means setting such guidelines and following them — watching carefully for any signs of trouble and responding quickly.
“If it’s broken, fix it,” Gagan said. “If it’s getting too much shade, move it. If it has a disease, send photos to the diagnostic lab at the local extension, then treat accordingly.”
A plant the deer won’t bother
So many peonies, so little space? Maybe the hardest part is choosing. With hybridizing, the mostly pink-and-white lactiflora range has been expanded to include crosses yielding coral, bright-red and yellow flowers, adding genetics from other species and extending bloom time.
You could explore the early blooming fernleaf types, which got their name (and very narrow foliage) from Paeonia tenuifolia. They are shorter in stature with vivid-red single flowers, suited even to a rock garden.
You could obsess over anemone-shaped flowers such as the pale pink Do Tell or the magenta Sword Dance, which are light on the full-size outer guard petals but heavy on the powder puff of feathery petaloids at the center.
Or maybe most tempting: flowers that you’ll want to bury your nose in — varieties with “dense fragrance,” as Gagan calls it. In some varieties, scent has been sacrificed in breeding for stronger stems or earlier blooming, but that’s not the case with the rich-pink Edulis Superba, the cloudlike-white Amalia Olson or Mrs. Frank Beach. Each one is a delicious standout.
And there’s another bonus for the gardener: Whichever of the thousands of named varieties of peonies you choose, they won’t attract deer and rabbits. Like the Narcissus and Iris that Gagan grows alongside peonies at the nursery — not for sale, but for pure pleasure — they are rarely damaged.
Apparently, those herbivores don’t know a good thing when they see (or smell) it.