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Planting Peonies

06/17/02 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) Commentator Henry Homeyer invites us to enjoy and perhaps to plant a spring classic: the peony.

(Homeyer) June weather is garden weather. For the most part, warm, sunny days and fluffy white clouds contrast with the rain and chill we've experienced throughout much of the spring. Most of us want to be outside right now, even if that means playing hooky from "the real world" to work in the garden.

June is also peony season. My favorite is called "Festiva Maxima". It's an old fashioned double peony, one my grandparents grew, one I grew up with. It has lush white blossoms with a little splash of red in the center, perhaps a drop of blood from a princess of long ago. And it has a scent that will sweeten a room, a fragrance so fine that it will make you smile.

If you do not own a peony, now is the time to buy one. Buy one in bloom so you can see the color and smell its fragrance. Peonies come in a wide range of colors and types of blossoms, and not all are fragrant. Pick one that you can love, and plant it carefully, because peonies, like diamonds, last forever. I have one that is well over 50 years old and going strong.

Pick a site in full sun, or one that has at least 6 hours of sun per day. Peonies need rich soil, but you can create that. They like moisture, but not a soggy location. Avoid a site full of tree roots, because they'll compete with your plant for water and nutrients.

Peonies have roots which develop into tubers, like long narrow sweet potatoes. They can extend two feet down into the earth. And since peonies are heavy feeders and hard work to move, it's important that you prepare a good nutritious place for your peony to live and grow.

I prepare a site for a peony by digging a hole about 18 inches deep and 18 inches wide. In the bottom, I put a good six inches of compost or aged manure and stir it around. In a wheelbarrow I make a mix of good garden dirt and composted manure, in roughly equal quantities.

With the dirt I mix in two cups of organic fertilizer, and some naturally occurring minerals that I buy at the garden center in bags: rock phosphate and green sand. I use a cup of each . Before planting I pretty much refill the hole with my mixture of soil and nutrients, and pack down the soil well so there won't be much settling of soil later on.

It's important not to plant a peony too deeply. The buds or "eyes" of the plant are where the stems originate, and they should only be covered with an inch of soil. If planted too deeply, a peony won't bloom. After setting my peony in the hole, I add soil, firm it up, and water well.

Don't worry if your Peonies attract ants, they aren't doing any harm. They swarm over the unopened buds, probably looking for some sort of nectar. But who knows? My grandmother told me they were there to open the buds. Anyway you look at it, they foretell the blooming of one of Spring's great beauties.

This is the Henry Homeyer, the gardening guy, in Cornish Flat, NH.

Henry Homeyer is a gardener and writer. His new book is Notes from the Garden: Reflections and Observations of an Organic Gardener.
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