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Care for peonies, springtime's colorful favorites

Given proper care, peony plants can flower for many years

File photo/The Gazette: A peony bloom stands out in contrast with the many daisies in the Brucemore gardens.
File photo/The Gazette: A peony bloom stands out in contrast with the many daisies in the Brucemore gardens.
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Peonies are a popular long-lived perennial that provides wonderful flowers in the spring and attractive foliage the rest of the growing season. If provided a good growing site and proper care, an established peony will live & flower for many years.

Todays gardener has a choice of several types of peonies to grow including fernleaf peony, tree peony and intersectional hybrid (a cross between the herbaceous or garden peony and the tree peony).

Most garden varieties grow 2 to 3 feet tall by 3 to 5 feet wide and bear 3-6 inch fragrant flowers in May or early June. The most common colors are white, pale yellow, deep pink, rose and red. Peonies benefit from a wire ring support system to prevent stems from flopping.

Peonies grow best in full sun and well-drained soils. Avoid planting near trees or large shrubs as the shade and competition for water and nutrients will discourage peony plant growth and flowering. Root rot is common for peonies if planted in wet sites.

Water peonies when the weather is dry, especially during bud formation and flowering by soaking the soil to a depth of 12 inches.

Fertilize plants when growth is approximately 12 inches and repeat after flowering. Lightly cultivate ¼ cup of a 10-10-10 fertilizer into the soil around the crown, and water. Peony crowns and young shoots are susceptible to fertilizer burn so keep fertilizer 6 -12 inches away. Shallow cultivation is necessary to avoid damaging the root system.

Deadhead the spent peony flowers to keep the plant looking nice and prevent fruit formation which reduces the amount of food the plant is able to store in the root system for a healthy plant the following year.

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The plant foliage should not be cut back until destroyed by a hard freeze in the fall. The foliage produces food for the plant to store in its root system. The more food the plant can store, the healthier the plant and the better the blossoms the following spring. Cut the stems at ground level in late October or November and remove the foliage from the garden. Destroying plant debris helps control leaf blotch and other fungal diseases to which peonies are susceptible.

Peonies make wonderful long-lasting cut flowers. For the very best vase life, harvest them early in the morning, while in the soft bud stage. Cut the stem at a slant and put in tepid water. You can even store them for later use by wrapping in plastic wrap and keeping them refrigerated until time to use.

No matter what kind or color of peony you choose to grow, follow these good growing techniques and you will enjoy beautiful spring blooms for years to come.

l For gardening questions, call the Linn County Extension Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.

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