Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nuthin' but a peony thang

Dear _________,

As a wee gardener, I was never interested in the short-lived plants. The I-give-up-because-it's-hard flowers. The ones that were so easy to grow that it was cheating at gardening. Petunias, pansies, marigolds, etc. The kind you could stick in the ground and forget. They're annuals and don't survive winter, though, so it's a waste of money for three or four months of flowers. Unless you have money to blow, in which case, I have a few charities for you to consider. I always wanted to go big, even as a young imp. No annuals. Only perennials (you know, the ones that come back after Winter). A plant I could grow old with. One of the first perennials I become obsessed with was the peony. All those ruffles of petals, the blossoms too large for the rain, and too heavy for the stalk. Much like myself, actually. It was love at first sight: a kindred recognition of similarity. "Oh, you're chubby and fluffy. I like you."

The Queen of my front garden. 2014, photo taken by yours truly with a phone.

If you live in hardiness zones 8-11, your peonies are probably starting to pop up. Mine are beginning to emerge with red foliage that makes me think of zombie fingers reaching up through the soil. And I actually go looking for them. Every year I am stricken by the possibility that I may have lost a peony, so every Spring I'm out there gently probing the soil where I last saw it in the Autumn, trying to hold hands with the zombie fingers that I discover still hiding a few millimeters below the dirt. I like to think it helps the peonies wake up. They smell fresh meat. I've even thought about putting some Lee Press-On nails on them just for the amusement of it. Maybe next Spring.

Emerging peony "eyes" with Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' 
Amid the hundreds of peony cultivars, some are slower to grow up than others. I have a few peonies that are awake and ready for school. They've eaten breakfast, and they brushed their teeth thirty minutes ago. And then I have one which takes its sweet time. It loafs around, gets distracted by trading cards, and is always looking for its shoes until the first bell rings. It's the peony that is most spectacular, of course. The pretentious queen.

I'm almost positive that the queen is a conjoined twin. I purchased a 'Butter Bowl' peony several years ago, but every Spring she has two different sets of blooms. One half is the original Butter Bowl, but the other is something pink and fluffy. I suspect it's a 'Sarah Bernhardt.' Now, I know that many newer peonies are often grafted onto the roots of a more robust cultivar, so I theorize that one set of blooms is from the original root stock, and the graft is the showier and newer cultivar. This is not as uncommon as it sounds. Rose breeders use the same technique for newer cultivars that are often not as Hulked out as older and more reliable rose cultivars. Most are grafted onto the roots of a rather unimpressive rose, but you rarely see it unless the graft dies and the original takes over. It's usually long and gangly and a tad ghetto. But it can survive a Siberian winter. The blooms are small and likely red, and you begin to wonder if fairies took your lovely apricot blush rose that cost you $50, and stuck an unruly changeling in its place. I've had it happen to me twice. So, having two different peonies on one root system isn't that strange, but having both healthy and blooming is like watching a Bonnie Tyler and AC/DC duet.

'Butter bowl' peony, 2014

'Sarah Bernhardt' peony, 2014
I have four peonies in my garden. I'm especially smug about my tree peony, which is a genus of peony that is woody. Herbaceous peonies have a fleshier stalk; they're the ones that look like zombie fingers, so it's fitting. Tree peonies are just like they sound: barky and shrubby. They also have a reputation for being persnickety: they need a helicopter parent to tend to every wish. My tree peony took years of coddling before it finally decided to accommodate me and bloom. This is pretty classic. Most peonies, herbaceous or tree, require a couple of years to get ready for the main event. Sure, you can purchase one that is already a few years old and blooming at your local garden nursery, but you'll also pay quite a bit and the selection is limited to what's in stock. I wanted super fancy peonies that looked like they were wearing petticoats. I wanted can-can dancers. I ordered them online in the Autumn (you can also do this in the early Spring/late Winter months-- so do it now). They arrived as bare roots: not a single knicker. The hussies. They were dormant of course, and I planted them when I got around to it (about a week after they were thrown to this wolf). Now, this is where you have to be very exacting. When planting a peony have a ruler handy, because if the tallest eye of the peony (where new stems start) is further than two inches beneath the soil, it will never bloom (unlike zombies). Lots and lots of foliage, happy as a clam, turning into a shrub, etc., but you might as well plant a boxwood for the leaves, because if the peony is too deep, that's all you'll get. It's the same if you plant it too shallow (less than one inch beneath the soil). Don't let this intimidate you, though. I was able to get it right the first time, which is saying a lot, because I'm rather adventure-prone and usually end up doing things the hard way the first couple of times. If I can accomplish this, you certainly can as well. It's worth the effort because those blooms are spectacular petaled pom poms, and I was never impressed by cheerleaders. Flowers are the sex organs of the plant, and cheerleaders are essentially the same thing: the proverbial sex organs of a sports team. Perhaps if they had been waving around peonies, I would have been dazzled. I've even had an ultrasound tech compliment my ovaries by telling me they look like peonies in bloom. How 'about them apples? He was probably just testing my knowledge of flowers and the human reproductive system, though. But I got it, and I nodded in respect.

Tree peony 'Shimadaijin,' 2014

Peonies are a small investment of your time and care (like ovaries). I've purchased bare-root peonies for a few dollars, and after a couple of years they start blooming and look like I paid $20. Five years later, I've hit the jackpot. Ten years? Hold on to your Lee Press-On nails, because you can have up to twenty or thirty blooms on a thriving plant. The first Spring they might put out tiny little buds that never bloom, then fall off. Don't fret. It often takes a year or two for a young or newly transplanted peony to bloom. Pick a sunny spot, plant at the proper depth with the proper hole size, and have patience. Peonies generally do not like fertilizer unless you want a profusion of foliage and no blooms. Sprinkling some bone meal in the hole during planting will suffice (again, zombies). Stake with a peony support or make your own to crutch the heavy blossoms (especially during rain), and don't scare the ants away. They help the peony buds open. Enjoy those pom poms.

Plant on, my friends.

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