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It is a foregone conclusion that no one will ever grow perfect peony plants.
But it should be our aim to approach this goal as nearly as possible. The following will give such directions as I think will best help us to come within a reasonable distance of this end.
First we must have a root of the proper size, free of disease, the roots ample to supply the needed nourishment for the best development of the plant. Although you can propagate them through peony seeds, an established root guarantees a more successful way to grow peonies.
This bare root must be planted properly, in a bed prepared in the best way and located where the best conditions for growth are found.
All of this will be of little avail unless the plant is given the care it deserves during its lifetime, which may be a hundred years or more.
Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) are divided into two main groups, the herbaceous, which die to the ground each year, and the woody, which are small shrubs, commonly called tree peonies.
The cultural requirements for both of these groups are generally the same. Where they differ, it will be mentioned.
Choose a suitable location. First of all, you need a well-drained soil. If it is not naturally so, tile drainage or raised beds should be employed.
This is a must. The sun should shine on the bed most of the day. Tree peonies will do well in a more shady situation than the herbaceous peonies, as they are native to the woods.
The roots of trees and shrubs must not invade the bed. They take the food needed by the peonies. Walnut trees are poisonous to peonies.
In preparing the place for planting, keep in mind that garden peonies are long-lived and resent moving, so they should be left in the same location unless it becomes necessary to move them. This being so, build their home accordingly.
Spacing the Plants
If planted in beds, a width of 16 feet is enough for the largest bed and each plant should be spaced at least three feet each way from its neighbor, four feet is far better and five or six is not too much.
It is best to stagger the plants in the rows for better viewing from the walks.
If planted in long borders, a width of four feet is about right. If planted as individual specimens, for which purpose they are ideally suited, the hole should be at least three feet in diameter.
These beds or holes should be dug out to a depth of 18 inches or more if it can be done without too much expense. A depth of three feet is not too much.
However, if this is too discouraging, remember that they will do well for a long time with a depth of ten or 12 inches, though more feeding may be required.
Keep as much of the original soil as is suitable for use, and discard the rest.
Growing peonies is best in a good garden soil, one that will produce good vegetables. Too much sand makes good roots, but few peony flowers.
A soil on the clay side produces the finest cut flowers, but plants are slower in developing.
They seem to thrive equally well in slightly acid or alkaline soils. If soil is too acid, a dressing of lime for quick results or ground limestone for long lasting, but slower, results may be applied at the rate of about a half pound to ten square feet.
After the bed has been excavated, fill it up to about eight inches from the normal level of the bed (see diagram) with soil into which has been incorporated about one pound of good garden fertilizer to a plant.
This fertilizer should be composed of the elements most needed by the soil used. Organic matter is highly recommended. Thoroughly rotted manure may be used, one part to three of soil.
Peony soil should never be too rich in nitrogen as that element makes lush, weak growth and few or no flowers. Generally speaking, the following formulas produce good results: 5-8-8, 5-8-7, 2-10-10.
A consultation with your county agent might be of value to you in your choice. Bonemeal and superphosphate are always good.
There is some objection to the use of manure, as it may be a source of disease. It should be well packed so that it will not settle. A thorough soaking will help.
Allow for Settling
Then fill the top section with the best soil obtainable without any fertilizer at all.
It is well to mound up the bed several inches above the normal level. The soil should contain enough humus to make it retentive of moisture and easily workable.
Well rotted compost, peat moss or sawdust may be used to supply this. If sawdust is used, be sure that it is suitable for your varieties of soil, as in some places it is not beneficial, but the contrary.
After the bed has been filled, give it a soaking with enough water to penetrate to the bottom of the bed. Do all of this as far in advance of planting as possible to allow for settling.
When ready to plant, lay off the bed, spacing the plants at the distance determined when the bed was prepared.
Dig each hole large enough to accommodate the root without crowding it. For accuracy lay across the hole a stick in the center of which a piece two inches long has been nailed at right angles.
Hold the root by the piece of stem usually left on it, and let the eyes touch the two inch pointer on the stick. The roots should then fan out from the crown of the plant and slope downward.
Fill it with the soil, packing it down well, being careful not to injure the roots or eyes and not to leave any spaces unfilled around the roots.
When the hole has been filled to the tops of the eyes, pour in four or five gallons of water and allow it to sink in. Then fill in the rest of the hole and mound the soil up above the plant five or six inches for protection the first winter.
Be sure that no fertilizer or manure comes into contact with the root.
In areas where frost does not penetrate deep enough to freeze the eyes and crowns, place the tips of the eyes even with the top of the ground.
Tree peonies should be planted with the graft four or more inches below the soil surface to force them to make roots above the graft.
The grafted roots, if they are from the herbaceous (or ordinary) peonies, will die in a few years.
Tree peonies on their own roots should be planted some what deeper than herbaceous peonies as their roots tend to spread horizontally from the stems.
If you use labels, they should be placed when the planting is done. A plot should always be made of your planting as labels have a habit of being misplaced.
The right sized root to plant has been the subject of much debate, but it may be safely said that, for the average gardener, the so-called standard division of herbaceous peonies is the best.
It should have at least three good eyes and two or more roots branching out from the crown and not crossing each other.
If it has only one main root, it should be well branched. They should be not longer than eight inches. Six is better.
Divisions with only one or two eyes and shorter roots make the best plants, but require more attention and take longer to develop into good plants.
Plants one year old from small divisions are usually about the same size as a standard division.
Two year old plants are sometimes used. They give quicker results for a year or two, but are outgrown by standard divisions in three or four years, so their use is not recommended.
Larger plants should always be divided into standard or small divisions before planting as they tend to stand still for years after planting and may never recover.
Tree peonies of any size, except those one year from graft, may be safely moved when dormant. Only an expert should attempt to plant one year grafts.
They often have no feeding roots at all and, unless carefully nurtured, will die. A two year graft is the smallest size recommended for planting of tree peonies.
Proper Planting Time
Fall is the proper time to plant peonies, when the roots are dormant, beginning in September for areas where frost comes early and in October where Septembers are likely to be hot and dry.
Planting peonies may be done until the ground freezes up for the winter. Where this does not happen, it can be done even well into the winter months.
Early spring planting if it is necessary, is most likely to succeed in the North. South of the Mason and Dixon line or the Ohio River, only the best of care will bring your plants through the summer safely when planted in the spring.
However, if plants grown in pots are obtainable, they may be planted at any time.
Potted peonies should be cultivated often enough to keep the weeds in check, starting as soon as plants appear above ground.
Never cultivate deep enough to injure the peony roots. Peonies need abundant water until they bloom and while forming the eyes for next year’s growth.
If rain does not come, water your plants with the hose until moisture soaks down to the roots. Repeat as often as necessary to keep plants from suffering.
To prevent fungal diseases such as botrytis blight and powdery mildew, begin spraying with a good fungicide as soon as the plants appear and repeat once or twice before they bloom and also after blooming to check leaf spot.
Bordeaux mixture is often used for this spray.
Fertilize sparingly after the second or third year. Use bonemeal or a good garden fertilizer. It will be well to keep up with foliar feeding.
For prevention of disease, the fall cleanup is by far the most important operation of the year. Gather all debris and destroy it. No stems or leaves should be left. Do not cut the stems until they begin to die.
Tree peonies should not be cut down. The foliage, however, should be gathered and destroyed.
Whether used to keep down weeds or for winter protection, a mulch should never be used of a material that will make a soggy mass on the ground.
Corn cobs, either ground or whole, or some other similar materials may be used.
Saw dust is a possibility but it is best not to use that from pine wood, as this is said to contain a product poisonous to some plants.
by Jorge Peyton