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Gardening with Gael - The Paeony Patch


Merijen - My Little Flower Co-425I have planted a paeony patch. From time to time Box entertains the idea of living in the South Island – less traffic, fewer people, cool weather. For me, one of the big attractions would have to be that paeonies [peonies alternative spelling] grow there.

I have yet to meet anyone who does not salivate at the sight of a glorious bunch of paeonies. Ask Merijen of My Little Flower Co, who sells flowers in the courtyard of Bennett’s Chocolate factory Thursday to Saturday.

“Even my daughters wait for paeony season,” she says. “They particularly like Coral Charm whose petals change colour as the flower opens. Customers ask for them. The large luscious blooms are particularly sought after by brides.”

The paeony season has started and the first have arrived [see attached photo].

I buy camellias and roses that have a paeony form. Up till now that’s the closest I’ve got. Then, one day while looking on the website of our local bulb supplier Bulbsdirect (bulbsdirect.co.nz) I noticed a selection of paeonies. I rang them.

“They do need chill hours,” advised Jean of Bulbsdirect. “I have decided that I too will give them a go this year.”

“I’ve heard ice may help,” I suggested.

“Certainly, I have frozen ice blocks in ice cream containers,” replied Jean. “They take longer to thaw. We are very excited to be offering the bulbs this year. A customer from Whangarei who lived in the South Island was thrilled to discover flowering paeonies in a garden one morning while she was out walking, so it can be done.”

“Done,” I replied and to my delight they still had a Coral Charm, the very one recommended by Merijen.

I hope we have as many good frosts next year as we have had this year. I talked to Ces at the Village Market. He has a friend successfully growing paeonies and to provide the necessary ‘cold’ winter he tosses scraping from his freezer. Further research suggests it is not just frosts but accumulated ‘chill’ hours. I have been unable to find out how many but one site suggested 150. I guess I will be freezing ice next year.

Box and I trailed around the garden one frosty morning looking for the coldest spot where the frost held into the morning. Paeonies are very particular about their environment. Each plant requires approximately one square metre of ground and because they prefer to be left undisturbed for years, choosing the right position is essential. They like cool roots, cold winters, full sun and hot summers. They do not like nearby trees and overhanging branches.

Autumn is the best time to plant because the roots have time to develop before the top growth commences and allows them to benefit from the cold. Depth of planting is also critical. If the roots and buds are too deep the plant can fail to thrive. Every site I read recommended measuring the distance from the base of the highest bud on the root [2 inches].

Paeonies are not strictly bulbs but are officially root pieces, although most people refer to them as bulbs. I remember being at a market in Christchurch and seeing huge paeony roots for sale.

The soil needs to be free draining and not prone to becoming water-logged.

Box rotary hoed the prospective bed and I carefully planted my bulbs (root pieces), measuring the depth and allowing a good metre between. Once planted, they are very easy to care for and require little attention. One site recommended tulip fertiliser to help strengthen the stem but generally they require little attention. Nitrogenous compost is to be avoided which saves me barrowing compost down to the site. Mulching with bark chips is acceptable. One paeony grower recommended a general all purpose fertiliser during the winter once they are established.

I was a little late planting my paeonies and we had definitely had our last frost. Armed with bags of ice I chose the coolest nights to heap ice around them to increase my ‘chill hours’.

Patience is also required. The first year, or maybe two, may elicit no flowers at all and only a few weedy stems. Some plants can take up to three years to reach their flowering potential. They can last 50 to 70 years so the ground work is worth it. During my research I noticed rabbits, who don’t eat them but may dig them out. Barney the dog now has two predators to control.

The endless rain this spring had me worried the roots may have all rotted but I am happy to report all the paeonies have new shoots. They are a long way off the beautiful paeonies Merijen is selling but I hope it is a start. Maybe in a couple of years.

EASY CARE: Merijen of My Little Flower Co at Bennett’s courtyard with early season paeonies.

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