Garden designer, writer and peony enthusiast, JANE FEARNLEY-WHITTINGSTALL gives tips on growing these voluptous blooms. Pictured below are ‘Cheddar Gold’, ‘Coral Sunset’, and ‘Buckeye Belle’, just three of her favourites (c. Jason Ingram).
Peonies will grow in most soils with adequate drainage, and like slightly alkaline conditions. In acid soil, add a handful of lime when planting. In light soil add well-rotted organic matter to boost moisture retention.
In full sun peonies will flower more prolifically but in light shade the flowers last longer and fade less. James Kelway thought singles did better in shade than doubles.
Most suppliers send out bare roots between October and March. Each root should have three or more buds. A white fungal bloom on the roots is normal. Roots can be kept for a few weeks in a cold, dark place, in moist potting compost.
Prepare the ground
Dig a hole 30cm deep. Mix well-rotted manure or compost and a handful of bone meal or general fertiliser. If planting a group, place about 75cm apart. Plant too deep and they may fail to flower – the buds, which will form the shoots, should be 2cm below the surface.
In flower peonies get top-heavy, especially in wet weather. In exposed areas, taller cultivars need staking. In average conditions, the following don’t need staking: ‘Buckeye Belle’, ‘Crimson Glory’, ‘Magic Orb’, ‘Shirley Temple’.
In autumn cut down dead foliage at ground level and clear it away. Top dress with bone meal or general fertiliser. If on heavy or sandy soil, mulch lightly with well-rotted manure or compost, in a circle about 15-20cm around the peony, avoiding the crown.
Pests and diseases
Botrytis – peony wilt – can cause stems to rot and collapse, usually just before or after flowering. Cladosporium can cause brown blotches that turn black on the leaves from July onwards. There are no recommended chemicals to control these fungal diseases, but they are not normally a problem if you maintain a good air flow around the peonies, not overcrowding them with other plants, particularly at ground level. If stems rot or leaves turn spotty, remove immediately to prevent infection spreading.
Flower buds exude a sweet, sticky substance that attracts ants, but these don’t damage the flowers.
Where to buy
Binny Plants, Binny Estate, Ecclesmachan, West Lothian
EH52 6NL. Tel 01506 858931
Claire Austin Hardy Plants, Edgebolton, Shawbury, Shropshire SY4 4EL. Tel 01939 251173
Kelways, Barrymore Farm, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ. Tel 01458 250521
Where to see
There are several impressive National Collections of peonies, from pre-1900, early 20th century and pre-1940s cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora to species peonies and herbaceous hybrids. For more details call Plant Heritage on 01483 447540 or visit the website at www.nccpg.com
Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is a garden designer and author of Peonies: The Imperial Flower (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999). To see her pick of the best peonies, see the May 2011 issue (173).