As an English native who ended up gardening in the New England entirely by mistake, my gripping about the length of the gardening season here knows no bounds. I will bore anyone with ears about it. However, the one silver lining to enduring our interminable winters here to then be slapped with an utterly miserable cold and wet spring is that by the time we do FINALLY get to the good part, we have truly earned our rewards. And to me my gold medal comes in the form of the peony, the quintessential early summer beauty.
Symbolic of love, honor, happiness, wealth, romance and beauty, you could be justified in asking why bother with any other flower? Bold, blowsy, beautiful scented, the two-to-three week – maybe four, if you go with a mix early and late varieties AND we don’t get a mini heat wave in there – stretch when the peonies are in bloom is the starting gun for summer. And that in itself should be a good enough reason enough to buy them just when they are in season.
I’m telling you – in season flowers will always look, smell, and last better than flown-from-afar imports. So don’t jump the gun and spoil that prize.
The many types of peonies
There are more than 33 recognized species of peonies with countless cultivars amongst them. The most commonly grown type is the herbaceous peony which die completely back in the fall to reappear in early spring. There are also shrubby tree peonies, as well as intersectional (Itoh), a hybrid of the two. Peony blooms are categorized in to six types: Single, Semi-Double, Full Double, Japanese, Anemone, and Bombe. Colors run the spectrum from pure white through to the deepest darkest reds. If you’re not sure where to start, my advice would be to head to www.peonysenvy.com. Their website is laid out such a way that makes it super easy to compare varieties.
As with the tulips last month, if you are planning on starting some this fall, the early bird catches the worm, so place your orders sooner rather than later when what you had your eye on might have sold out. They won’t ship out until it’s the right time to plant.
There are few easier low-maintenance plants to grow than peonies – if you abide by the one golden rule. Best planted bare root in the fall but even if you plant out a potted-up plant, Do Not Plant These Too Deep! Bare root, the flower buds should be barely an inch below the soil surface. I know this seems counter intuitive and you are leaving them to brace the elements unprotected just as winter approaches, but be brave. You need to do this otherwise they will not flower. Last fall I planted a new bed and covered them all with a layer of straw for this first winter. As soon as the snow was gone, I whipped the straw off and they are all now rocketing up. Be careful if you mulch your beds. Be sure to pull the mulch away from the base of the peony.
Wait three years for it
Once planted, the brakes have to go on for a bit in terms of cutting blooms. I say a bit but what I mean is three years. THREE YEARS I hear you yell. Yes, I’m afraid so. Initially they need to pour their energy into developing a really strong root system and not pushing out flowers. Once they’ve done that they will last for decades. As my garden goddess Vita Sackville West wrote: “They are so long lived that once you have established a clump, they will probably outlive you.”
And then we get to the really good part, bringing them inside. To gain the longest vase life, peonies are best cut before they fully open and in what is known as the marshmallow stage. A peony flower head starts off as small ping pong-sized ball. Cut this when it is still hard and your flower will not open. Wait until this feels squidgy like a marshmallow and it is good to go.
The one downside to peonies is that their bloom season is not that long. But there is a trick to prolonging the time you can enjoy them. Pick the flowers at that perfect marshmallow stage, remove all leaves, wrap the ends in damp newspaper and place is a plastic bag. Then pop them in a fridge. They can last for several weeks like this. (I once read about someone’s granny who saved hers until Thanksgiving every year!). The one caveat is there can be no fruit or veg in the fridge with them. I have found that my husband’s beer fridge is the ideal place for these. Being English too, the warm beer I have hoofed out to make space is not that much of a drama – I tell him it should remind him of home. Others may not be so understanding!
Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.