June 10, 2012

Maine Gardener: Get ready for an explosion of stunning peonies

By TOM ATWELL

Peony season is approaching its peak, and barring a long spell of cool, damp weather, this should be a great year for the huge and stunning flowers.

"They are early," said Ken Liberty of Bangor, immediate past president of the Maine Peony Society, who will be holding an open house at his peony garden on Saturday and June 23. "I would say about a week early in my garden. And they are in great shape, taller than ever and doing very well."

Liberty said that with the early season, he expects there will be more blooms this Saturday, but there will still be plenty for people to see if they visit June 23.

Liberty and Elizabeth Babb, who has been growing peonies in Cumberland for decades, say that if you plant the right varieties, you can have peony blossoms for about six weeks -- not on a single plant, but on different varieties of plants.

Babb said her first peony this year bloomed May 12, and she expects to have some in blossom on the Fourth of July.

Bob Bittenbender, grounds manager at Maine Audubon Society's Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, said the peonies are in good shape, and he thinks he guessed well in picking Wednesday as the date for the peony festival at the farm. He just hopes the recent rainy weather does not continue as the blossoms open, which can cause major damage.

Nancy and I do not claim to be in the same class as Liberty, Babb and Bittenbender when it comes to growing peonies, but we had one cream-colored peony -- a Chinese woodland variety called "Willmottiae" from Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina -- that bloomed about May 15. And we have a wonderful red tree peony that bloomed over the last week of May.

Our traditional herbaceous peonies now have buds the size of ping-pong balls that could be coming into bloom about the time you read this.

Local nurseries sell potted peonies throughout the spring and summer, but peony aficionados buy their peonies bare root in the fall.

"If you get them in the fall, they have been dug up when they are going dormant, and they are in better condition and more likely to survive," Babb said. "And when you buy bare root, you can see what you are getting; you see the whole root. You don't know how much root there is in the pot."

Babb did say that the nursery stock of potted peonies is much better than when she first moved back to Maine after her working career.

"I think a lot of the nurseries are getting them from White Flower Farm, and they do a great job," she said.

The key to getting good blooms on your peonies is to not plant them too deep, Liberty said. 

"When planting them, you have to make sure that the eyes of the peonies are not more than 1 to 2 inches below the surface of the ground," he said.

Other than that, peonies do not need a lot of special care. Babb likes to give them about six hours of sunlight each day. Liberty says he has an urban lot with a lot of shade, and some of his peonies do fine on four or five hours of sunlight.

The soil should be a neutral pH, and not too damp. "You don't want to over-fertilize, or you will get all leaves and no blooms," Liberty said.

Babb prefers using a low-nitrogen, higher-phosphate fertilizer, but also stresses that you should not use too much of it.

And Bittenbender prefers to use super hummus as a fertilizer for the Maine Audubon peonies.

(Continued on page 2)

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