Peonies are the most feminine of all flowers. They are so big they will droop into the mud if you don’t stake them. Their fragrance is the boldest in the garden, a thick concentration of honeysuckle and rose. They are round, full and unstructured. They are like the most beautiful and complicated woman you know, at the end of a really awesome day that began as a really bad one.
Growing them is a marriage of science and faith. Here’s how:
Peonies like a lot of sun, easy to find in Tennessee. However, too much heat makes them unhappy. Like tulips and daffodils, they need a cold winter to shore up for a good display in the spring. Offer a little shade and don’t bed them down with mulch in the winter.
They don’t like to be planted too deeply. Peony divisions, which look like a tangle of roots with several “eyes” shooting from the top, like to be no deeper than a few centimeters below the soil surface. Plant them in a bed so you (or your neighbor’s son) won’t mow them down when they appear around late February.
They don’t like to be too wet. Amend your clay soil with sand and compost, and try to plant on higher ground.
They are hungry. I fertilize with a 10-10-10 fertilizer in the early spring. My soil is also rich with compost from a pile my daughter calls the “Worm Hotel”.
You’ll need to prepare for the voluptuous blooms by setting out stakes or supports when the first shoots are about eight inches high. You’ll also need to prepare yourself to wait for several seasons.
This is where science yields to faith.
Even after all this attention and preparation, it will likely take 2-4 years before your plants produce flowers.
The first spring after I planted mine, I had a few shoots of greenery and nothing else. I was busy with the rest of my new garden and didn’t think too much about it.
The same thing happened the second spring. I Googled, “My peony has no flowers,” and learned this was normal. Gardening is a lot of work and a lot of patience.
The third spring, a few tight buds appeared. For the most part, they were green, but a few veins of pink and white hinted at the flowers inside. They never opened, though, and I Googled, “my peony has buds but they won’t open.” My searching left me with a choice: worry that the peonies had a disease or that I’d planted them in absolutely the wrong place; or have faith that I needed only to wait for a cold winter.
This year, we had a cold winter. And this spring, I have flowers.
Ah, you fickle, lovely blooms. I can smell you two rooms away.