Gardening with Galligan: Peonies another gift of June

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Nothing is lovelier than a bush of pink peonies in full bloom.

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Nothing is lovelier than a bush of pink peonies in full bloom.

Where beauty is concerned, peonies are the only flower that can rival the rose for the title “Queen of the Garden.” They leave roses in the dust, however, when it comes to hardiness, ease of care and longevity. A single peony plant can live for more than a century.

The peony is used symbolically in Chinese art and in older dynasties of China; it was the national flower.

The Chinese city, Luoyang, was the center for the cultivation of peonies and dozens of exhibitions are still held there annually.

The flower types include singles, the Japanese, the anemones, the semi-doubles, the doubles and what are called bomb-doubles. You get the drift. Unless you are willing to buy the very round and elaborate stakes made especially for peonies and unfailingly guide their growth, it’s best to avoid the heaviest flowers since they will simply fall over no matter what you do.

The size of the blooms actually are one of the few drawbacks of this flower. In a small garden or a narrow bed, they often seem out of scale. But if your garden is large, they can certainly play a role. If not, the literature recommends their use in groups in front of a shrub border or as a low hedge. They can also be used in specimen plantings. Since there are early, mid-season and late varieties, it’s possible to have peonies in bloom for six weeks.

Peonies will not fuss about soil, although they prefer the heavier types and, like all perennials, require good drainage. For new plantings, dig a large hole but be careful not to place the plant too deep. Spacing should be roughly 3 feet apart, and the best time for planting is not, as you might imagine, in the spring, but rather in the fall.

Peonies will manage without a great deal of feeding but will respond remarkably well to a degree of care; two applications of an all-purpose fertilizer, the first in the spring when the emerging growth is 10 to 12 inches, and the second when bloom has ended. As in all feeding, this should be done either before rain or with the use of a sprinkler; the sooner the chemicals reach the roots, the sooner the plant receives the food.

When cutting flowers for the house, be careful not to overdo it. For new plants, the rule of thumb is one-third of the blossoms; for established plants, you may cut up to two-thirds. But remember that the plant needs foliage to provide for future growth. Some books say that as long as you leave enough foliage, you can take all of the flowers but I have never dared to do that — better conservative than sorry.

Peonies, like roses, are unfortunately subject to disease. “Noble rot,” if you can believe it, was the name given to the fungus, Botrytis, by the ancients, and it is still around today. It affects not only peonies but can damage strawberry plants as well as tomatoes.

Years ago when I was a new gardener, my peonies were full of it one spring. I cut some leaves and brought them to an Islander who had a vegetable stand on West Neck Road and who I thought knew everything. I remember she told me, “That’s what happens in a wet spring.” Of course, she was perfectly right. All fungi flourish in moisture. An anti-fungal spray will work.

Next week, we’ll celebrate July 4 with patriotic gardens.

Tip of the Week: Check out the orchids in Becky’s flower shop in the Heights. She’s got some gorgeous specimens, especially those yellows!