Plant Profiles | Choosing + using luscious garden peonies in your landscape

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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! 

Plant profile: Pro info and tips about garden peonies for home gardeners

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. 

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Combinations:

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. 

Problems/Concerns:

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!

Plant Profiles | Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)

RFLD_Magnolia_stellata

One of my very favorite ornamental trees, Magnolia stellata, or star magnolia, is just a showstopper in the springtime.  Its strappy white blooms flutter in spring breezes (or sometimes FLAP in Iowa's bluster!) and are such a welcome sight early in the season. 

The tree is native to Japan and handles our central Iowa culture and climate well.  It grows to around 15-20' tall with a spreading, rounded habit, making it an easy addition to most home landscapes- thatshape is like a neutral in an outfit - it goes along with anything!  Its deep green, leathery foliage is lovely in the summer, but its season to shine is right now- early spring in zones 4-8. 

The darling blooms will last as a cut flower just about a day, but they're worth it.  Up close you can see the hot pink tones on this unknown cultivar at our farm. 

RFLD Magnolia stellata blooms

With no real pests or disease issues to worry about, you only have to be prepared for the occasional early frost to nip these beautiful buds.  It will happen on occasion throughout the years, but I think this beauty is worth the risk. 

Clematis color cues

People often ask what plants to combine in a garden - How does a person choose? Take this clematis as an example.  What blooms would work with this simple stunner?

There are many factors that inform a decision about plant combinations.  One way to help the decision is to get to know the delicate intricacies of the colors of the plant.

Purple clematis - Clematis jackmanii - is familiar, sure.  It's common and somewhat pedestrian - one of your neighbors probably has one scrambling along a mailbox. But if you look closer, it's also remarkable: ruffled purple cross-shaped blooms, silvery-white and even bold hot pink.

Consider plants that could echo those color details.  Try it with Silvery-white lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina).

Or pair it with soft white and deep purple mountain bluet (Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow')

You could also continue the purple-silver combination into deep summer with purple-pink sedum (Sedum 'Matrona') and artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound')

The best part about thinking through all these choices?  Getting to enjoy the subtle details of your blooms.

Hellstrip Plantings- Great Grasses

I've noticed the landscaping outside an office building near me for a few months.  The strip of ornamental grasses between the parking area and the road has consistently looked amazing.  The "hellstrip" - that area that is baked in the sun and surrounded by asphalt - is a tough area for anything to grow.  These grasses make it look easy.  The tawny flower heads are looking great right now, but even as new green shoots they held their own.  The plants completely fill the space.  Dense and soft and airy, they really change this narrow, l-o-n-g space.  Just imagine what it would feel like if the same strip was filled with rock! A planting in a nearby hellstrip shows another commonly used plant - a Stella d'Oro daylily.  It's so sad! 

These daylilies looked great in early summer, I'm sure, but no longer.  Part of the deal with hellstrip plantings is that this area requires plants to be okay with low, low maintenance and high, high stress.

Can't wait to see these golden beauties as they age into autumn color!

Great native plant option- Smooth hydrangea

Looking for a showy native shrub?

It seems that new hydrangea cultivars appear everywhere you look, but this old stand-by is tried and true. Consider Hills-of-Snow smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Grandiflora’) for your garden. It was discovered growing in the wild in Ohio around 1900 and is native to moist, wooded slopes and stream banks from New York to Iowa and across the southeast.

This lovely granddame is covered in large (2-6”) flower clusters from early June into the fall. Blooms emerge pale green, age to creamy white, and then dry to a tawny brown. While it is considered hardy to zone 3 or 4, it may die back almost to the ground in harsh winters. Since it blooms on the current season’s wood, this won’t affect its flower display and could even help it – pruning to 6” in late winter to encourage vigorous stem growth. Any pruning should be done before the growing season, so that flower buds aren’t cut off.

Hills-of-Snow smooth hydrangea wants consistent moisture, part shade and average, well-drained soil. It will tolerate full sun if it doesn’t dry out. In a good location, expect this shrub to grow quickly to reach a height of 6’ and easily spread 5’ or more. Expect its blooms to nod during a rainfall, but they’ll stand up again- they aren’t as big as those of their cousin ‘Annabelle’, and the stems can handle the weight pretty well.

Elegant enough for a formal courtyard of native plants with cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) and foamflowers (Tiarella spp.), Hills-of-Snow hydrangea also plays well with other wood’s edge natives like asters (Aster) and columbine (Aquilegia). 

With so many excellent hydrangea options on the market, I could never pick a favorite, but this tough garden stunner is a great one to consider.   (Okay, actually oakleaf hydrangea - H. quercifolia - is my hands down favorite, but that's for another post...)