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September 22, 1997

Home & Garden

Fall is for planting peonies

  by Mary Robson
   Area Extension Agent

   As a collector of museum store catalogs, I often see gift cards or scarves printed with elegant paintings of the lovely garden flower, the peony. Peonies have been grown and appreciated in China for thousand of years. Their ruffled petals, shining colors (every color found in a perfect tropical sunset, but not all at once!,) and garden usefulness make these perfect plants for the maritime Northwest.
   One paragraph of description just isn't enough to convey the glory of peonies. Their blooms are stunning. After bloom, the plants remain attractive, with handsome leaves that are definite garden assets and accents. Some peony foliage turns soft burgundy in fall, adding to the fall garden scene. This is, in one woman's opinion, the perfect garden plant.
   Both herbaceous perennials and tree-types thrive well in our gardens. The tree peonies form a woody structure, leafing out and blooming in spring (usually in May just before the later herbaceous peonies start.) Tree peony flowers produce gasps of delight from the most jaded observers. Imagine a softly ruffled, open bloom with petals in white, pink, yellow or rose, accented with yellow centers. Imagine it nearly 12 inches across!
   The herbaceous type peonies are far more familiar, since many of us grew up with the old-fashioned double red peony as a feature of a grandmother's garden or farm. At my childhood home in northern Ohio, masses of red double peonies were picked to honor cemeteries on Memorial Day at the end of May. Hybridizers have produced singles as well as the doubles, in colors like soft pink, rose, salmon, and deep red.
   Fall is the best time to plant or transplant peonies. Don't transplant an established blooming peony unless it's very crowded or moving it is necessary during a garden remodel. Transplant after the plants are dormant. Peonies are available as bare roots in fall, and fall is definitely the time to plant bare root.
   Peonies are also sold in containers in spring at many nurseries. Many nurseries have them in containers, which makes planting a bit more flexible and also helps in picking out the exact plant that's most appealing.
   Pick a sunny spot in the garden. Sun is essential for flower formation and disease prevention. Peonies grow best in a well-drained, deeply dug soil amended with compost or other organic matter. When planting, take the same care you would with planting a tree. Peonies can live for decades, so prepare a worthy spot.
   Adding fertilizer once in the early spring as the plant begins to grow will help, but choose a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10. Too much nitrogen fertilizer will cause leaf growth but reduce the flower production. Keep fertilizer away from the crown of the plants, spreading it about 6 inches to 18 inches away around the plant. Don't spread any fresh (uncomposted) animal manure over the crown of the plant or place it under the roots when planting.
   Be sure when planting that the crown area, where the growing tips are is not planted too deeply in the ground. The visible "eyes" or new growth points shouldn't be deeper than 2 inches below the surface. The pinkish eyes should face up to the sky, because they are next year's stems.
   Peony growers agree that planting too deeply will lead to lack of bloom. And when planting peonies for the first time, be patient. If a small root is planted, it may require three or more years to come into significant bloom.
   Peonies will sometimes get a fungal problem called peony botrytis blight. This disease causes symptoms like buds turning black, or drying up without opening, stems darkening and sometimes rotting all the way through, and leaf curling and blackening. One way to deal with this blight, which is made worse in wet springs, is to clean up well around the plant, because the fungal organisms can overwinter in the ground. Clip off any stems with these symptoms now.
   When the leaves die down for winter, usually after the first hard frosts, carefully trim out all the old foliage. If botrytis has been severe, use a registered fungicide in spring when growth resumes, applying it several times before bloom. Daconil and copper sulfate are registered.
   When clipping off foliage now, watch out for the pinkish pointed buds of next year's growth which will be just at ground level. Avoid snipping those. Don't put any of the cut-off foliage in compost piles.
   Peonies can be planted by one generation to be enjoyed by the next. Many nurseries have peonies for fall planting now. Make it a family project! A peony specialist in this area is A and D Nursery, 6808 180th S.E., Snohomish, Washington 98296-8340. The nursery is in Clearview, 1/2 mile west of Highway 9 (10 minutes north of Woodinville.)
   Write them for a catalog, enclosing $2 (refundable with order.) Or visit during fall open hours, Wednesday through Friday 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.