Q: I would like information on peonies — such as what to look for when shopping for this plant and how to plant it so it will do well. Can you help with this?
A: The peony (botanical name paeonia) is the state flower of Indiana. There are 3 popular types to choose from which I'll mention here.
There is nothing common about the herbaceous peony — but it is the plant most of us think of when hearing about peonies. By the way, herbaceous just means a plant that dies back to the ground every winter.
Although this is a very hardy plant with beautiful blooms and shiny green foliage, it has a somewhat frustrating characteristic which is weak flower stalks that fall to the ground when blossoms are heavy and full of water after a rain.
In anticipation of this happening, situate (over the new growth in early spring) one of the square shaped wire trellises designed specifically for tomato plants. This will give those stalks the support they need to keep the blooms off the ground. Bamboo stakes inserted in the ground will act as supports as well.
Often people worry about the black ants that they see crawling on the buds. They are not harmful to the plant — in fact they are after the nectar oozing from the bud and even though there is no proof that they are necessary, that activity helps open those fabulous blossoms we all enjoy.
Instead of the old fashioned peony, you may want to look for the tree peony which has sturdy flower stalks and blooms several weeks earlier than the Memorial Day peony. This plant defoliates in late fall and sets buds on the old wood. Due to its makeup, this wonderful plant can be coaxed by careful pruning to look and behave much like a small tree. The seed pods make an interesting addition to potpourri and the seeds are very often viable so you can easily start new plants.
Another choice is called Intersectional. This is a combination of the tree peony and the herbaceous peony and is herbaceous. This hybrid has characteristics of both plants which make it desirable — plus it offers a wider variety of blossom colors than the other two types.
Now, let's plant:
•Plant in a full sun location in soil that drains well.
•Dig a hole large and deep enough to spread the roots, approximately 12-18 inches deep and 18 inches wide.
•Make sure the eyes of the plant are about 2 inches from the soil surface. If planted too deep, you will be disappointed with a plant that either shows little growth or none at all.
•Amend the soil you remove from the hole. If the soil is mostly clay, add some sphagnum peat moss, a little sand, a lot of compost, and some manure.
•Separate out half the soil concoction and add 1/4 cup of fertilizer (5-10-5). Mix well!
•Place this soil mixture into the bottom of the hole with the tips of the root downward and eyes up (remember – eyes no deeper than 1-2 inches from the surface of the soil).
•Do not add fertilizer to the soil mixture that will surround the plant.
•Next, back fill with the rest of the soil mixture.
•Water well but never over water. Peonies like it moist but do not want to be standing in water.
•Be patient. In a couple of years after the plant becomes established (and every year after that) you should see more and more bloom.