If I told you about a perennial that blooms with large, fragrant blossoms, keeps its green, glossy foliage all summer, lasts for many years without dividing, likes chilly winter weather, is drought tolerant, and the deer don't like it, you might think I was describing a new, recently developed plant. Either that, or you'd think my imagination had gone wild.
Actually, however, I have just described a peony. Peonies are one of the most versatile perennials to grow in our temperate climate. They fell out of favor a few decades ago, as modern horticulture brought forth new, exciting shrubs and flowers for our landscapes. Peonies were considered a "granny plant" — your grandmother no doubt had a few in the yard, partly because she didn't have the thousands of plant choices we do today. Also, a peony can be described as a "leisurely" plant, as it is a bit slower to develop its full potential, and in our fast-paced lives, we are too impatient to wait around for that to happen.
Happily, though, peonies are making a comeback as interest in heritage plants grows. We also are more concerned about the use of chemicals in the garden, and peonies have very few insect or disease pests. All they ask is a long-term place in well-drained soil, six hours in the sun daily in summer, minimal care and a winter cold enough to make them go dormant.
September through November is the time to plant peony tubers. The plant needs a sunny area and good drainage; standing water or soggy soil is deadly. Locate your peony at least two feet away from any wall or paved area, and do not plant it under the eaves, as this deprives it of winter moisture. Dig the planting hole at least 15 inches deep and 30 inches wide. Do not skimp on this step. This is a long-term investment, as peonies can live for 40 or more years. The planting mixture should be half good, aged compost and half soil from the planting hole.
Plant the tuber with the eye up and roots down. The eye should be two inches below soil level. I learned from personal experience that planting them too deep will cause them to not bloom.
No fertilizer is needed at this point. To help settle the amended soil you are using in the planting hole, pour two or three gallons of water into the hole after planting the tuber, let it settle, and add more planting mixture to keep the eye only two inches deep. Put a small stake in place to avoid injuring the tuber before it breaks bud in the spring. Do not let the tuber dry out until the ground freezes, as it will be busy sending out feeder roots to give it a good springtime start.
Apply a 5-10-10 fertilizer each fall after the foliage dies back and again at bloom time, being careful to avoid fertilizing directly over the crown. Mulch in the summer, but pull the mulch away for winter to help ensure adequate chilling, which is essential for peonies.
You will be rewarded with masses of vivid blossoms in shades of pink, white, red, lavender or yellow; most are fragrant. A bonus of peonies is that their lovely foliage serves well to provide cover for the dying foliage of early-blooming spring bulbs. They last well as cut flowers, or float them in a bowl of water.
To buy from a local source (a practice I always recommend), Deason's in Medford is the only place I know of in the Rogue Valley that raises hundreds of species of peonies. It's their only business, and they are very helpful for the beginner in peony culture. Check their website at www.deasonpeonies.com. Of course, garden stores carry peony tubers, but they probably were not raised here.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.