Kris Jurik, gardener of a mini peony-land based in Iowa, shares her experiences of caring for the most romantic flowers known to human.
Like many others, Kris started her journey with just a few varieties on the first year in her garden at Ames, Iowa. A few more cultivars were added by the next year; but much to our surprise, the number of plants skyrocketed and within just five years, she had more than 1000 peony bushes in her garden. But it doesn’t end here; she still has numerous boxes of peony tubers sitting in the garage. “It’s an obsession,” she says. “I’m so tight on space in the garden that I always attempt to squeeze a few more in.”
According to Kris, her plant enthusiasm was flamed after a school field trip to Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “That place is magic,” she says. After getting married and moving to Iowa, she decided their 8 acre was best to house her previously favorite plants, irises and hostas. When the local deer ate the hostas, she tried to fill the gaps with another perennial. As she mentioned, peonies were the perfect choice since they remain untouched by the deer.
Peonies were a solution at first but soon enough, they became a new passion. Kris started attending meetings of The American Peony Society to learn more about various hybrids, rare cultivars and diversity of colors. After a while, she decided to join the community. “Did you know that there are many different white colors?”
During spring and summer, Kris welcomes garden tours to share her passion. Speaking of which, even artists would pay the peony garden a visit to make sketches and paintings of the flowers. According to Kris, “They look so interesting, particularly while they start to unroll”.
What keeps Kris passionate is the flower requirements. The delicate plants should receive small amount of water (rainwater alone will usually suffice), not be staked (a little flopping won’t be troublesome) and kept away from any fertilizers. “You can just plant them and walk away.”
There are still some Siberian and Bearded irises growing in the middle of peonies, adding hues of blue and purple. “They are perfect contrasts for all the pink, white and red,” she says. The round and full peonies tend to expose the upright irises and show them off, whether in garden or regarding adjustments.
Some people still believe that deadheading peonies will increase the number of flowers for next year, but Kris doesn’t do so. She just trims the wilted greens during autumn.
For adjustments, Kris recommends to “cut the blossoms when they feel like soft little marshmallows”. If cut too hard, they won’t bloom. “Pinch them to ensure they are ready,” she says.
Types of Peonies
Most commonly known and loved by people, Herbaceous peonies come in diverse shapes; from simple flowers to fluffy doubles. These plants will grow in 2-8 zones and for proper flowering, they should be provided with a winter chill period. Once in bloom, the flowers might last up to ten days.
Just as the name suggests, these peonies grow up to 7 feet tall and will develop large flowers, some may be even 10 inches in diameter! The towering bushes significantly affect the garden. Compared to Herbaceous, tree peonies are more diverse in colors and have a prolonged lifespan (up to 14 days). These plants will grow in 4-9 zones and won’t need super cold periods; however, they’re tolerant to temperatures below zero.
Combination of high Herbaceous peony vigor with the hardiness and color diversity of tree peonies has resulted in a new hybrid, the Itoh (aka intersectional peony). Kris believes the small and finely mounded plants are perfect options for landscaping. Itoh peonies grow in 4-9 zone and have the longest blooming period (up to a month).
Tips for Growing Peonies
Peonies are low-maintenance and not picky; provide the appropriate conditions and some varieties may last hundred plus of years.
It’s best to avoid transplanting peonies. Having said that, think well before planting. You should leave 3 to 4 feet of free space between every two bush to provide adequate air circulation. These plants will function better in full sun areas.
Best Starter Peony
Kris usually advises amateur gardeners to start off with Itoh (known as Bartzella) for peony growing. This cultivar is super resistant to diseases, tolerates some shade and is able to develop around 30 to 60 fragrant flowers per season.
During spring, peony tubers will be available at greenhouses, but Kris prefers to save on cash and plant local bare-root tubers in autumn. Peonies will function better in loamy and rich soil, so if your garden is sandy or clay soiled, modify the composition with some compost. For tuber sowing, dig up a hole 2 feet in both width and depth. Form small heaps for the tuber to get placed 2 inches higher from earth level. The ‘eyes’ must be facing upwards. Water generously and cover the heap with mulch to prepare for overwintering.
To prevent burning newly grown plants, avoid fertilization when branches start to unroll in spring. For growth improvement, you can adjust the compost level during the first month of summer. Rainfalls in Iowa are enough to keep the plants hydrated, thus Kris avoids watering regularly; but if your area doesn’t receive adequate rain water, make sure to moisten 4 to 6 inches of top soil. Be careful not to get the soil waterlogged. Pour the water on root base so the rest of foliage stays dry. Excess moisture might induce diseases like powdery mildew. Setting the peonies upright with specific hoops or letting them flop is up to your own preference.
During autumn, trim large portions of plants to prevent overwintering diseases. Cover the cut foliage with mulch, and let the plant remains be until next spring.
For a typical peony bouquet, this arrangement has hosta leaves and a couple of spiky flowers as the base. Such setting will enhance the golden-centered ‘Astarte’ and pinkish ‘Lois Kelsey’ peonies, attracting more attention to denser varieties. A tough tree peony known as ‘Sir Fredrick Stern’ is popular for the purple heart-shaped mark in the middle of flower petals. ‘Mini Belle’ Herbaceous is Kris’ favorite, because “you can spot the big, flamboyant red flower with enormous yellow center from miles away”.
For some varieties, petals will stay intact after flowering period is over. Wilted petals for various cultivars such as ‘Pageant’ will fall down. This is referred to as self-cleaning. After all petals are absent, the carpels and central reproductive structures will be visible.
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