Roddy Llewellyn: Perfect peonies

PUBLISHED: 11:55 19 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:42 20 February 2013

The Shipston gardener

The Shipston gardener

The harsh winter will bring its rewards in the form of a bounty of beautiful peonies predicts Roddy Llewellyn. Here's his advice on growing these blooms.

Perfect peonies

The harsh winter will bring its rewards in the form of a bounty of beautiful peonies predicts Roddy Llewellyn. Heres his advice on growing these blooms.

There are some plants that enjoy a harsh winter because they flower all the better and produce lusher foliage as a result the following season. One very good example is the herbaceous peony. Their hardiness can be explained because the majority of commonly cultivated peonies in this country are hybrids of Paeonia lactiflora whose natural distribution is extremely inhospitable parts of the world like eastern Siberia and remote hillsides of western China and eastern Tibet where winter temperatures plunge far lower and for far longer periods than we could ever expect during a British winter.
Peonies were introduced to our shores by the Romans who cultivated them mainly for their medical properties. Apothecaries later used them for a whole range of illnesses including infertility. There is one species,
P. mascula russi, with a generous display of large, pink-purple flowers with rich, golden stamens during March and April, that has naturalised on the Isle of Skokholm off the Pembrokeshire coast in the Bristol Channel, having first been introduced there by monks in the
14th century. They thrive in Chicago and on the plains in Hungary where winters are always very cold and summers very hot. Peonies vary so much in flower colour and shape that there is bound to be at least one variety that will appeal to all gardeners.
Herbaceous peonies grow best in full sun although I have found that the single-flowered varieties dont mind some shade. This reminds me of the mouth-watering P. mlokosewitschii, (commonly called Molly the Witch as no one can pronounce it) with large, single, buttercup-like yellow flowers and attractive, pink, emerging shoots in spring and decorative red seeds in the autumn. What a beauty she is.
Peonies are best planted anytime during the winter up until March and are remarkably unfussy about soil, so long as it is adequately drained, although they do prefer it on the alkaline side. If yours is acidic an addition of lime at planting time can only do good. They are greedy feeders and so add a handful of bonemeal or general fertiliser to the bottom of their hole that has been generously enriched with well-rotted manure. Young plants take a season to settle down and normally only start flowering in their second season.
Peonies should never be planted too deep. Plant them so that the young shoots are only about one inch (2.5cm) below the soil surface their reputation about them hating to be moved, resulting in poor flowering thereafter, is nearly always because they have been planted too deep. It is never wise to mulch over them, which will bury them too deep, but rather mulch around them and they will love you all the more with an autumnal top dressing of fertiliser.
They like a good open position and hate competition from shrub or tree roots, so give them plenty of space remembering that they will clump up to 3ft x 3ft (1m x 1m). Plants have been known to last for over 100 years so this initial preparation is well worth the investment.
If herbaceous peonies were maintenance-free, they would be
too good to be true, their only weakness being that they need to be supported if the flowers are not to flop after rainfall.

Sir Roddy Llewellyn is a garden consultant and speaker who gardens near Shipston-on-Stour.


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