Good morning! Summer solstice has come and gone, but the extended hours of light certainly are showing in plant growth – and we will just skip over how much the weeds like it. For me, solstice always marks not just the beginning of summer but the explosion of summer flowers.
Daisies are everywhere along with perennial cornflowers, lupines and the first show of color on roses and peonies. The lovely, incomparable scent of peonies wafts through the yard, and you just have to stop and smile.
So, I thought peonies might be a good topic today since they are all around us in their tremendous, if way-too-fleeting beauty. But before we get to that, I have to give you the latest installment of what I have decided to call “Critters on the Cliff.” (I had to give it a name because this stuff just keeps happening.)
It was a recent beautiful and warm day, and I had left the doors open so the dogs and cats could wander as they pleased for their afternoon naps. I heard an odd and very loud noise outside; and at the same time, the cats, Angus and Newt, came running through the door while Gizmo, our little protector (he is not aware he weighs only 13 pounds), began his “pay attention, Mom, the world is in trouble” bark.
Our pacifist dog, Gadget, stood poised in the doorway undecided as to whether he should run to help his brother or hide. He picked the latter, his usual choice. Our world had gone from perfect peace to complete turmoil in about three seconds. I walked outside to save Gizmo from whatever the “thing” might be.
Running down the driveway – and to give Gizmo credit, in the opposite direction – were six turkeys creating a terrible noise and making a very clumsy attempt at running. Whoever started that turkey reintroduction in Maine should be getting big gold stars for the success of that program. The turkeys are everywhere!
Now to the peonies. I get lots of questions about them, especially from new gardeners or longstanding gardeners who have never planted them. I think peonies are a gift in the garden although they don’t last nearly long enough. But the brevity of their bloom period is offset by their beauty. And peonies are easy to grow. Let me repeat, peonies are easy.
There are a few considerations to make before you plant them, however. First, a peony will grow up to be a fairly big bush, and they need room to do that. There are dozens of cultivars but on average they are 3 to 4 feet tall and wide when full-grown. They need to be placed where they get full sun and will continue to get sun for the next few decades.
They live a long time and do not like to be moved once they are settled in. It doesn’t mean you can’t move them, it just means it’s tricky – so it’s easier to place them properly from the beginning.
Some will grow in partial shade but as trees grow and the shade deepens, your blooms may suffer. Peonies will be happy in a garden with other plants as long as they have room. I planted mine with roses, and they seem to be happy companions; but there are no other plants in that particular garden to crowd them.
Every book you pick up will tell you to plant peonies in the fall, but I planted all of mine in May. I am not a fall planter of anything but bulbs, and they had no problems. I did, however, purchase them at reliable nurseries, and they were in bloom when I did so. This is important. The No. 1 complaint I hear about peonies is that they are healthy and green but don’t bloom. Almost everytime this is because they were planted too deep. If you buy a peony in bloom and plant it at the EXACT depth in the ground as it was in the pot, it will grow and it will bloom. Most plants adjust if they are planted a little too deep, but peonies do not.
Peonies need to be planted in a deep bed to support their root system, and they like fertile, well-drained soil. Mine get fed pretty much what everything else does. They get a slow release, 10-10-10 fertilizer for perennials and fresh compost in the spring. I am careful with the amount of compost around the peonies because they do NOT like to be mulched. This includes winter cover.
It is important to cut peonies back in the fall. I do this after frost and leave about 2 inches to mark the spot for the spring. I find this an easy way to avoid stepping on them when spring cleanup begins. When the individual stems that comprise the bush are about 2 inches tall, I apply the fertilizer, the compost and put their rings around them.
Peonies grow very quickly once they emerge; and on more than one occasion, I have been late in getting rings on them and ended up damaging stems in the process. All of my peonies are doubles; therefore, their blooms are very heavy. Without rings on them, all the blossoms will end up lying on the ground after a hard rain.
One of my favorite stories about peonies involves the infamous ants you will always find on them. I spent my formative years in California and peonies overall are flowers that grow in colder climates. When I arrived in Maine, they were a wonderful discovery. When I asked my mother-in-law about them she said, “Never plant them near a door dear, they call the ants.” Over the years, I have come to understand the colloquialisms of “Maine talk” but being newly arrived I was not familiar with them. When she said this, I had visions of peony bushes whispering “Here ant, here ant.” It still makes me laugh when I look at peonies.
The real truth about peonies and ants is not nearly as funny. Contrary to what many believe, ants don’t help peony buds open nor do they harm them. Ants eat the sweet sap that the bud puts out, and they leave when the blossom opens. Ants are simply taking advantage of what Mother Nature offers for lunch. If you shake the blossoms gently upside down before bringing them into the house, ants are seldom a problem.
Until next time, walk through the garden and take a deep breath. The smells are wonderful. Enjoy the Fourth of July with family and friends, fly your flags, be grateful to those in the military, and share a smile with everyone you meet. You might be surprised how many people will smile back.
Jody Goodwin has been gardening for more than 20 years. She lives in Turner with her husband, Ike, her two dogs and two cats. She can be reached by writing to her in care of the Sun Journal, 104 Park St., Lewiston, Maine, 04243-4400 or by e-mail at [email protected]