There's an old, dilapidated house next to the post office in Prospect, Virginia that looks careworn and weathered. The white clapboard siding is peeling; the chain link fence around the property sags. A few window panes are gone. Debris from the local bicycling trail, candy wrappers from weekend warriors, blows across the rough wooden boards of the front porch. It looks like any other nondescript old house except for one item of note: the peony garden. Each spring, the yard of this old home erupts into a field of nodding magenta and pink blossoms that any gardener would envy.
As someone who loves old-fashioned peonies, I marvel at the hardiness of these herbaceous perennials. Native to Asia, portions of Europe and the Western United States, peonies were once a cottage garden staple, especially during the Victorian Age, the era in which the aforementioned house was built. They grow well in Virginia, and thrive in cooler regions, too.
While there are several types of peonies, including the shrub type that I spied at the old house and grow in my own garden, as well as tree peonies, let's talk first about the herbaceous shrub-type peonies most commonly found in Virginia gardens.
Caring for Peonies
Peonies should be planted in area that receive full sunlight, or six or more hours of bright, direct sunshine daily. Good air circulation and rich, well-drained soil are both essential for healthy peonies.
You can purchase peonies in pots or roots only. If you plant the roots, make sure the "eyes" or growth nodes on the stem are no more than two inches deep when planted. Roots planted more deeply may not produce flowers.
Peonies may need a year or more to become established in the garden, but once they are established, a winter period of chill and cold helps them set bud. It's best to provide them with a circular support to keep the heavy flower heads from dragging the plant down after a rainstorm. Peony hoops or stakes should be used to provide optimal support.
Keep your newly planted peony well-watered the first year. It probably won't flower the first year, and may not flower the second, but it should produce flowers by the third year. Apply a balanced garden fertilizer annually. Other than that, there's not much you need to do to care for peonies.
In the fall, after the foliage dies back naturally, clip it to the ground and remove the peony supports, hoop or stake. Discard the foliage in the trash. The only disease that really plagues peonies is botrytis, a fungal disease. Practicing good garden hygiene prevents botrytis from spreading.
Ants on Peony Bushes
If you spy ants on peony bushes, don't panic. They won't harm the flowers. Ants are naturally attracted to the sweet nectar produced by the buds and flowers. Although they can be upsetting to some gardeners, they won't eat your flowers or plants, and they can be beneficial insects. It's best to leave them alone. If you'd like to bring cut peony flowers into your home for display but you're afraid to cart a few ants in with them, spritz the flowers outside with your garden hose to knock off the ants before bringing the stems indoors. Both the ants and your family will thank you later.
If you haven't planted peonies yet, what are you waiting for? They're easy care, beautiful herbaceous perennials that grace gardens with an old-fashioned look. If they can thrive at an abandoned house, what can they do in your well-tended yard?
Photos by Jeanne Grunert/(c) 2015 Jeanne Grunert. All rights reserved.