Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Peony Walk

The only border behaving itself this time of the year is the Peony Walk.  This is its fifth year, and we are beginning to divide.  The Walk started as a narrow gravel path flanked by three holes with a single peony dropped into each.  Naming it the Peony Walk was a nomenclature typical of the Laissez-faire Gardener, the owner of the property, who encouraged me to garden there.  (Note: the Laissez-faire Gardener was so named followed a question about the right time to prune. “The right time,” he said authoritatively, “is whenever the mood strikes me.”)

Siberian iris in the Peony Walk

My plan to expand it was a tough sell, but has worked out well.  It runs about 40 feet in sun and partial shade, is simple in materials and elegant in forms: Siberian iris, peonies blooming a bit later but overlapping, astilbes and daylilies for some color in the summer and Japanese anemones for fall.    All the above were selected for elegance of form, foliage that lasts throughout the growing season, and beauty of bloom.  We stayed with shades of pink and white for the peonies and a full range of blues for the iris.  Although we charted the varieties when planting in order to check them against the nursery labels, those labels were lost long ago and we can now only admire.

Well-established, mature peonies

The herbaceous peony is the most generous and forgiving of flowers.   It will settle down in semi-shade and still bloom.  While equally happy in full sun, the filtered light of overhead branches will deepen its color.  They are very long-lived and if left undisturbed will increase in vigor and size; your grandchildren will be cutting blooms from the peonies you planted fifty or more years earlier. 

When brought into the house, a mere two flowers can overwhelm a small container.  As large as cabbage roses, a single blossom will light up a room before, almost without warning, it falls to the table.  If you mistakenly move them to another location close to their final moments, the petals will fall apart and drift, following your footsteps across the room.   

A peony is that rare plant offering beauty from the moment it starts to grow until frost.  Long after peonies stop blooming the foliage adds strength and substance to the perennial border, particularly when set close to the wispier plants.   If you disbud them for bigger terminal blooms, you will have to stake them.  We left ours alone at the beginning, but now support them all with iron hoops. You must settle the hoops around the peony early in the season, pressing the hoops’ three legs firmly into the soil.  If you are going for the largest of the doubles, you might need individual stakes of bamboo to support the heaviest heads.  They can be removed after flowering.

Peonies must be planted shallowly in a bed rich in manure and compost so that they have a deep and rich root run.  “Shallowly” is a serious directive; the eyes must be set exactly as they were below the soil line to insure bloom.  Deer and rabbits give peonies a pass, and they seem almost impervious to disease. Peonies don’t like to be moved, but will tolerate a relocation if it is undertaken with care.

Single peonies in Riverside Park
The single or Japanese peonies are more delicate in appearance than the doubles, while at the same time possessing greater clarity and purity.  They have exceptionally strong stems, and are seldom lost to heavy weather.  Their centers are clearly visible.   The double peonies, on the other hand, never show their centers, but unfold as large clusters of petals.

Double ruffled red peonies in Riverside Park
 Doubles can be more dramatically grouped with Siberian iris than can the singles, and if you are looking for companion plants for all your peonies, you cannot do better.    Blooming later than their bearded cousins, (which precede peonies) the form of the Siberian iris is very different. 

The upright sword-like foliage is an excellent foil for the more luxuriant and lanceolate peony foliage.  The flower buds emerge from the foliage, not from the base of the plant or from a terminal bud.  At first it appears you will have only leaves, but if you look closely you will see a bulge at the edge of the foliage.  It gradually thickens, then colors, then emerges.  If you pull up a lawn chair you can almost watch it flower. 

Siberian iris in elegant bud
Siberian iris will bloom slightly before the peonies open, but their velvety color and the texture of the petals makes the slight discrepancy in timing insignificant.  Japanese iris will bloom along with the peonies, have the same flattened heads and beautiful falls as their Siberian cousins, but require much more moisture and are happiest when their feet are wet.

Iris possess a special grace and beauty.  Their leaves are blue- green with a grassy texture that sways in the slightest breeze.  They are available in shades of blue, purple and white, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.  They soon form large clumps that will bloom heavily each year, whether in partial shade or full sun and average or damp soil.
Siberian iris in its first year

The combination of peonies and iris is one of the glories of June, tidy and elegant; a breather before the blowsiness of mid-summer sets in.

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