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Keep your peonies blooming with these tips from Ciscoe

Master Gardener Ciscoe Morris has a few contraptions to prevent flopping flowers.

SEATTLE — Peonies have always been a favorite perennial of mine. The big flowers are beautiful and long-lasting in bouquets and even sometimes are fragrant. I grew a number of these gorgeous perennials growing up.

They're one of the only perennials hardy enough to survive in the cold winters of “Wischeescin” aka Wisconsin.

If you're having trouble getting your peonies to bloom, it's usually because they are planted too deep (the buds should stick up just above the soil surface) the plant is too crowded (peonies need room to thrive) or it isn't in enough sunshine (peonies need full sun to bloom well).

Fertilizing really helps make peonies bloom and thrive. Work in two cups of alfalfa meal (available at most nurseries) and the recommended amount of organic flower food in the first week of April and water it in well. Usually, one application of nutrients is all that is needed per year.

Peonies make for some of the finest cut flowers but bring one in, and inevitably, you end up with ants in the house. Growing up as a youngster in Wischeescin, it was common knowledge that an ant had to visit a peony bud for the flower to open. That is one of the famous horticultural myths; in other words, a bunch of bahooey. The ant is attracted to a sweet substance, but the flower will open regardless of the ant's visit. Pick your peony flower just as it shows color, but before it opens. Then blast off the ants with a hose. The flower will open soon after you bring it into the house, and you won't have ants as uninvited house guests.

One problem with herbaceous peonies is that the flowers are so big and heavy that they tend to flop. Fortunately, there is a staking system that is easy to use and fairly unobtrusive. English Y stakes consist of a thin metal pole with two thin wires on the top. The pole is inserted into the ground near the plant and the wires can be bent around the plant to hold the branches upright. Usually, it takes two or three stakes to hold up the branches and flowers on a large peony. The beauty of this system is that it is barely noticeable, easily constructed, and does a good job of holding the branches upright. 

Another method is to place a circle grid staking system above the plant in spring and allow the branches to grow through it. Make sure to use plastic ties to adhere the circle grid to the holding wires so they can't disconnect and fall apart. This method works very well, and you can't even see the grid staking system is in there once the foliage grows through it.

Finally, give Itoh peonies a try. Itoh peonies are crosses between tree and herbaceous peonies and feature the best traits of both parents These crosses have been around since the 1940s but until recently, they were extremely difficult to find and you could expect to pay over $1,000 for one. Now, they are finally becoming available and affordable for home gardeners. The bushy plants grow like herbaceous peonies, but they are crowned with the huge dinner plate-sized flowers of tree peonies. The blooms come in a wide range of colors including yellow, and occur on such strong stems that they don’t require staking. An exciting trait is that a mature Itoh peony can be expected to bear 30 to 50 flowers that open over several weeks in late spring. The blossoms even emit a pleasing spicy scent. Plant them in a sunny location in well-drained soil amended with compost. Water well the first season to establish a strong healthy root system. Cut the stems down to the ground in autumn as you would herbaceous peonies. The one difference is that since the flowers open over an extended period, Itoh peonies look best if you deadhead them. Use care to avoid injuring emerging flower buds when you remove the spent flowers to ensure a long blooming period.

By the way, if you saw the show, you heard the story about the trouble I got into with peonies and the role it played in my ending up a gardener. If you missed the story, you can read it in my newest book 'Oh, la la!'

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