I’m so grateful for peony season ... when my very favorite perennial shows off! There is just nothing like the enormous ice cream cone blooms of an old-fashioned peony. Scent, cut flowers, great foliage - these perennials have it all. Maybe you have some questions about peonies and are thinking of planting some, now that you've seen them showing off all over the place? Read on!
What you need to know:
Growing peonies is a pretty easy endeavor. They are hardy and happy in zones 3-8, and for generations have thrived in central Iowa's zone 4-5 gardens. Stunning blooms appear in late May and can keep on coming into early July, depending on the plants you choose. Plant a few different cultivars and create a long-lasting show from the display of blooms.
Garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids) have been grown for centuries because of those show-stopping flowers. Some perennials will bloom for months in your garden (hi, coreopsis, scabiosa, and catmint! I'm looking at you), but peonies are in and out in around a month or month and a half. So fleeting and yet so totally worth it. And the fragrance! Amazing. More and more cultivars are appearing all the time - crosses with tree peonies (Peonia suffruticosa and hybrids) bring more colors, larger blooms and sturdier stems to the mix.
Garden peony blooms come in three basic types: double, semi-double, and single. Each has a totally different flair and affect in your landscape. If your early summer landscape was cast out of Steel Magnolias (and why wouldn’t it be?!?!?) then those doubles would have to be Truvy – extroverted, enthusiastic, and definitely head-turning. The double flowers have row after row of fluffy petals forming a large cone-shaped bloom. Singles, with one or two rows of large, fluttery petals surrounding a center of stamens, are more along the lines of M’Lynn – delicate, elegant, and subdued. Semi-doubles still come across as pretty restrained to me, more like Clairee- but they won’t get overlooked! All have a place and a role to play in the landscape. What you're left with for the rest of the summer and into the fall is this fabulous glossy foliage - a great backdrop for other plants in your garden and fantastic filler for cut flower arrangements.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a whole sweeping area simply filled with peonies (has anyone been to the Boboli Garden in Florence?) , but a great early summer combo is a mass of peonies planted with big globe allium bulbs. Try Allium ‘Ambassador’, Allium ‘Globemaster’, or Allium stipatum ‘Mount Everest’. Layer the peonies with later-blooming perennials for color all season long. Try pairing them with hardy geranium and sedum for a romantic and refined summer show, or with asters and coneflower for a laid-back, informal garden.
PRO TIP: CHOOSE CAREFULLY WHEN YOU'RE SITING THESE BEAUTIES. PEONIES ARE LONG-LIVING, AND THEY DON'T LIKE TO BE MOVED.
The only issue I ever run into with peonies is powdery mildew on the foliage later in the summer. Try to prevent this problem by 1) cleaning up and disposing of foliage in the fall and 2) opening up your plantings to allow good air flow. If you have powdery mildew anyway, treat it with a conventional fungicide (read and carefully follow the label!!!) or try a mix of baking soda, liquid soap, and dormant oil. Growing a Greener World's website has a great post on powdery mildew control.
Where to get them:
Check at your local garden center and talk to their buyer about cultivars you're interested in! If you're patient or on a budget, I highly recommend Van Engelen Inc for wholesale pricing. Often the bare-root peonies we've gotten from them in the fall will bloom the following spring!