Peonies Still Have a Place in My Garden

Early-blooming peony, name not remembered.

By Lenore Linton, Master Gardener

When we moved to our current house on July first 1962 the 75 foot lot was not a blank slate. In the centre was a fifty year old house surrounded with garden most of which was bare beds of cultivated soil with gravel paths in between. The previous owner had used these beds to grow and breed prize gladioli. There were however, some permanent plantings such as raspberries, rhubarb, an arbour of wild Manitoba grapes and a cultivar of an Isabelle Preston lilac. The arbour of wild grapes and the lilac still grace our garden today.

And, there were Peonies: at least twenty well established plants. Most of these peonies were pink, a few were shades of red and all had large very double blooms. They were planted in two beds of just peonies as well as along the foundation on the west side of the house. We gave very little attention to the peonies as we made changes to make this property our home. The first big change we made was to convert some of the former gladioli beds and paths into grass where our son and the expected baby would have a place to play. Over the years we made other changes; we planted apple trees, removed maple trees that were invading the sewer, planted more trees and transplanted three peony plants to my mother and step father’s new garden. I went to university and began teaching in 1977. My gardening still focused on the vegetable garden and annual flowers in containers. The much neglected and ignored peonies returned each spring; often to have their beautiful blooms lying on the ground during the heavy June rains.

I still have two of the original peonies growing by the west foundation of the house. Each June I pick the buds when they are in the soft marshmallow stage to share with friends and neighbours. They open in the vase and last for ten days or more.

Fast forward to June1996 I retired; I now had time and energy it was my turn to play in the garden. In September 1996 I bought a copy of Lois Hole’s PERENNIAL FAVORITES. This book became my gardening bible for the next ten years. The book listed the “100 best for Beauty and Hardiness” I had fallen in love with the rainbow of colours displayed by both Asiatic lilies and tall bearded iris (little did I know that the tall bearded iris also needed supports to keep the flowers upright in the rain), and I gave away more peonies. Into the existing peony beds I planted Asiatic lilies and tall bearded iris and other perennials. I started removing grass to enlarge the existing beds and to create new beds and borders. And I planted More Peonies! The first was ‘Coral Sunset’ that Ferncliff Gardens classified as an early flowering hybrid. I planted the root with three eyes in the fall and by the second spring I had three sturdy stems, one with a beautiful coral bloom that needed no support. One June when visiting a friend I saw the peony ‘Red Charm’. I was green with envy. In the September I was planting a root of ‘Red Charm’. I now have two plants of ‘Red Charm’ in my garden and they are the only peonies that need supporting, but are well worth the effort.

Peony ‘Coral Sunset’, like a prairie sunset each flower opens a deep coral and fades to a soft cream. Picture taken June 20, 2022
Peony ‘Red Charm’

By 2012 it became evident that my right knee was probably going to have to be replaced and if I was going to continue gardening I would have to make some changes to the garden. The first to go were the tall bearded iris. I had already removed the Asiatic lilies as they were being mutilated by the lily beetles. In searching the Winnipeg library catalogue I discovered Sydney Eddisons’s ‘Gardening for a Lifetime How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older’. I soon bought my own copy; my go to reference as I garden in my old age.

When making changes to a garden Eddison says the first place to start is the perennial border. When deciding what to keep and what to remove she has “worked out a standard of behavior for perennials. In order to remain in my garden a perennial must return faithfully every year. It must be healthy and exhibit the fortitude to endure dry summers without supplemental watering and endure cold winters without additional mulching…It must have superior or at least good foliage attractive for most of the season. A well behaved perennial must maintain a tidy habit no flopping or sprawling. It must remain within reasonable bounds… no overtaking of neighbours. It must not offer an invitation to predators, pests or diseases.”* When reading this list of requirements, I quickly realized that the original peonies in my garden met all these requirements if only they didn’t flop over in the rain when in bloom. However, I also realized there were a number of loved and long-lived perennials in my garden that met theses requirements. They remained but others had to go and were replaced with shrubs as advised by Eddison (chapter 3 A Step Toward Simplicity: Substituting Shrubs for Perennials). The first to be added were hydrangeas: ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Lime Light’.

Peony ‘White Cap’ takes centre stage while hydrangeas wait in the wings
‘White Cap’ peony in a supporting role as Quick Fire and Lime Light hydrangea bloom in August

Eddison’s standard of behavior for perennials is much like the criteria that the American Peony Society uses when bestowing an Award of Landscape Merit. “Peony cultivars bestowed this award are chosen for superior ornamental value, overall appearance in the landscape throughout the growing season and reliable performance across North America. Plants are required to be self supporting in a wide range of weather conditions and reliably display their flowers. Special attention is given to foliage condition throughout the growing season”. This award is given to herbaceous as well as Itoh peonies. On the American Society’s web site there is a picture and description of each of the 30 peonies that have received this award. In my garden the following peonies have received this award: ‘Coral Sunset’, ‘Cytherea’, ‘Do Tell’, ‘Early Scout’, ‘Hillary’ (an Itoh), and ‘White Cap’. However, I have three other Itohs and two other herbaceous that have not received this award who perform well in my garden. Peonies are the only perennials that I cut back each fall. The only other care they receive is the removal of dead flowers and a light scattering of an organic vegetable fertilizer 4-6-8 in early spring (if I remember).

Peony ‘Cytherea’
Itoh peony ‘Hillary’

During the last few years I have continued to plant both shrubs and peonies in my garden. In spring and early summer peonies take centre stage, but during July and August and fall they play a supporting role allowing other perennials and shrubs to take centre stage.

*Page 36 of “Gardening for a Lifetime how to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older”. Published 2010 by Timber Press

Itoh peony ‘Haleigh’s Hallelujah’ shares a bed by the back gate with Quick Fire hydrangea, Sunny Outlook nine-bark and a purple smoke bush

Published: January 2023