Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018
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Peonies are gift that keep on giving

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A recent walk at the Toledo Botanical Garden revealed an unbelievable display of colors and plant combinations. Whether it was the fresh addition of annuals, repeat bloomers of perennials, or the woody trees and shrubs that serve as the bones of the garden, each plant is a treat for garden visitors. I sometimes say that public gardens are like playgrounds for gardeners. They can be a source of ideas and enjoyment too.

One plant in particular stood tall and beckoned my attention. Well, that was a half-truth as some of these plants spilled over, flopping from the weight of the fragrant flower heads, downpours, and whipping winds. But even then, peonies (Paeonia spp.) are beautiful and one of my perennial favorites.

After my walk, a quick scan of Facebook saw many gardeners posting photos of their prized peonies either in the garden or as cut flowers. A Facebook friend posted a photo and tagged it as a “compost pile rescue.” What a save! Later that day, I received an email suggesting peonies as a topic in the garden column. So here it is.

Even though the seasonal blooms of peonies are winding down, they are still fresh on our minds. Many gardeners I know have commented that their peonies were starts from family and friends, and sometimes shared across generations.

Peonies bloom from late spring to early summer and have been categorized as early, midseason, and late bloomers depending on the plant you pick. Careful selection of peonies can provide a succession of bloom that can last for about six weeks.

Plants prefer full sun to light shade. Soil should be fertile, slightly alkaline, and have good drainage. Plants in the shade will produce sparse and spindly flowers.

Peonies can be used in mixed borders or planted in a cutting garden. In addition to the beautiful flowers, the new leaves emerging in the spring are often red in color and are a gardener’s encouragement that yet another spring has arrived.

Often peonies are planted in combination of other springtime favorites that bloom at the same time. Iris (Iris spp.), sage (Salvia officinalis), and baptisa (Baptisia australis) are just a few. Later blooming perennials including catmint (Nepeta spp.), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), are great companion plants that don’t compete with peony but rather stand on their own merits later in the season as they bloom against the peony leaves that remain after the flowers have faded.

Common problems that can occur on peonies include botrytis blight, phytophthora blight, and leaf spot. Good sanitation practices can aid in the spread and help prevent future infections. Fungicides labeled for the plant or pest can be implemented using an integrated pest management approach.

I am frequently asked about peonies and ants. Ants are attracted to and will feed upon the nectar produced in the flower bud. The ants do not cause any damage while they are seeking the nectar. They are also not required for the blooms to open. Because of the reliable presence many people like to remove the ants before bringing them indoors or sharing a bouquet.

Blooms can be removed as they fade. Foliage should be left even after the flowers pass. The remaining leaves produce food to “grow” the plant for future years including a healthy root system and ultimately the energy reserves stored in the roots for next year’s flowers. If you need to move or divide your peonies, late summer is the optimal time so plan now.

For more information about peonies, check out the American Peony Society (americanpeonysociety.org). If only the informational website included a fragrance feature. Additionally, Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor has a Peony Garden (peony.mbgna.umich.edu) that is a must for anyone who loves those plants.

Amy Stone is an extension educator with the Ohio State Extension – Lucas County, Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Contact her at: stone.91@osu.edu

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