Never Too Many Peonies – Just Too Many Choices: tips for making smart selections

Our Hudson Valley house came with a lot of heirloom peonies buried in the weeds and shade, so many huge old root masses that after rescue and division we had enough to string them all along the front borders of the vegetable gardens: 100 running feet of peonies, divided in half by a grassy path roughly 6 feet wide.

I'm standing at the halfway point

I'm standing at the halfway point

It’s wonderful to be able to pick andpick  without making a dent.

Only part of the morning harvest

Vincent ignoring part of the morning harvest

But it’s slightly less wonderful to have the overflow using up a non-trivial chunk of the fenced space that should be devoted to food.

peonies in the vegetable garden

After all, one of the things that’s great about peonies is that deer really do seem to leave them alone. So this year, finally, we’re movin’ ‘em on out. And I’ve bought new different peonies to plant closer to the house.The new ones will go in a rose garden that’s been due for overhaul and has never had peonies in it; avoiding spots where peonies have been before is rule number one.

After that, the deluge.

How to keep your head above water:

1. Be sure your assortment includes a wide range of bloom times from very early to late. Inconveniently, about 80 percent of choices are described as “midseason” aka “more or less at the very same time as all the other peonies you already have.”

2. Regrettably, most of the ones with killer perfume are doubles or bombs, great waddy masses of petals that hold pounds of rainwater, with predictable results.

3. Even if “mass of petals”  means peony in your book, don’t forget to include some singles, semi-doubles and Japanese types. They are seldom strongly fragrant but what they lack in that department they make up for by being gorgeous in the vase, much better able to withstand bad weather, and much more likely to stand out: If you’re looking for bright red, this is where to find it.

4. The corals are irresistible, but they don’t always play well with others and it’s almost impossible to tell what “coral” will mean in your garden until the plants bloom. To be safe, avoid proximity to reds and pinks that lean toward the purple side, or be prepared to move something.

5. Remember peonies are foliage plants; the leaves can be as lovely as the flowers and they’re around a lot longer. Descriptions that bother to mention the foliage are worth paying attention to.

6. Size matters. The taller the bush, the more likely it’ll need a wire corset to keep from flopping over.

No garden can really be too small to hold a peony. Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the centre and proceed to worship.”

Alice Harding, from The Peony,” a compilation of Ms. Harding’s Book of the Peony (1917) and Peonies in the Little Garden (1923), put together by Roy G. Klehm, peony breeder and nurseryman – like his father and grandfather and great grandfather – whose family  Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery is still shipping for planting this fall, to my checkbook’s great regret.

in the garden photos by Bill Bakaitis

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