A Gardener’s Diary: All about peonies

Jocelyne Sewell finds inspired information about the popular plant in The Book of Garden Magic

For two nights last week, we had some white roofs in our area, but luckily my garden didn’t get any frost. As I write this column, it is 24 degrees C and hard to believe that summer is on its way out. I have started to clean the yard and pick up all my pots and whatever lays around. The soil could use a good rain as it is very dry and all my rain barrels are empty at the moment. I am hoping to fill them up again for a last time. A few light frosts would not hurt them but they have to be emptied for winter. If some water is left in them and they freeze, they will crack.

Years ago, I was given an old garden book, The book of Garden Magic by R.E. Biles. I have taken advice from this book many times. I like the part about peonies in the things to do in September.

“Remember September 15th at 9 a.m. the clock strikes for transplanting peonies.” I might miss the timing but I plan on transplanting some of them this year. Some of the advice in the book is to transplant your peonies in rotation — a few each year if you have many to do. In this way you will not risk loss of bloom on all of them.

All I am writing about peonies today is taken from that book.

“A peony is an investment for years. Handle carefully to protect from injury before planting. Mid-September is the best time for digging the roots if you are transplanting. Roots must be at least 12 to 15 inches long (30 to 38 cm). If possible two people should dig against each other in removing the old plant. Remove as large a ball of earth as possible. Stay away from stem 15 to 18 inches (38 to 45cm). Use forks, not spades, and go as deep as possible.

Peonies need a sunny location. They will bloom in medium soil but respond to well-prepared soil. Prepare the holes in advance and if possible in a new location. The lower 12 inches of the hole should be filled with soil well-mixed with perfectly rotted manure or compost. Bone meal in the hole will benefit the roots later when they can reach into it. Tramp this layer of soil well and soak it several days before planting. Prepare the top soil with more compost and good soil.

When dug, the roots will be brittle. Allow the ball to be exposed to sun and wind a few hours until tops wilt. Roots will then be more pliable. Wash off earth with a hose spray, until thoroughly clean. Remove tops to two inches (five cm). Cut off neatly the bruised or damaged roots if any. Bend the large clump carefully to find the weakest part and divide there. Cut with a strong sharp knife. Then subdivide these clumps into strong roots having four or five eyes. Roots without eyes are worthless.

As the crown of the plant must remain at two inches (five cm) from the surface, it is essential that all soil be firmed to avoid settling. Water as planting proceeds to settle earth. A root planted too deeply may not bloom next year or later and one too shallow may suffer winter injury.”

This seems a lot of work but I always went with these rules and my transplants have always bloomed the following year. I am sure that a lot of blooming peonies survive without all this fuss.

For more information: 250-558-4556.

Jocelyne Sewell is an organic gardening enthusiast in the North Okanagan and a member of Okanagan Gardens & Roses Club in Vernon. Her column appears every other Wednesday.