Friday, September 28, 2007

Splitting Peonies

Friday, September 28, 2007

Almost 8 PM. I have been out twice with Karl the wonder dog listening to him snort at something I know I can't see and I don't think he can see at all. His breed has better ears than eyes and snorting is his way of getting what he thinks he sees to turn and look or not turn anymore. That's my take on his behavior but I've surely seen it a lot. Since Gail recently saw Mrs Bear and the cubs and neighbors have reported other bears, I'd rather Karl give a few snorts so I can catch on to danger before I have to react to it.

It's 55 degrees out right now and the ground is still soggy in places from last night's storm. We really needed the rain we received and a little more would not have hurt. More rain will be here any time now.

The ground was dry yesterday when I helped Gail dig a peony for an order. It could have been a Kansas or a Felix Crouse or a Mrs Margaret Truman or something we had in pots, but no, it had to be a Sara Bernhardt (registered in 1906), one of a couple dozen which have been growing in a close row since way before Alex was born 15 years ago this August.

Gail was convinced that this was exactly the peony flower her customer was looking for so who was I to interfere with such a deliberation. I watched Gail circle the plant with the shovel and although I knew she was cutting into some of the roots, I worried not, for age had given these plants some especially heavy roots. I grabbed my shovel and together but to no avail we tried to free the roots from the ground. "Tenacious" is a good word to describe how the roots held fast until I opted for my six foot pry bar and in minutes had the root mass turned on its side, like a predator overturns a desert turtle. I got the big yellow wheelbarrow, tipped it on its side and righted a beautiful peony root which must have weighed 60 pounds.

Gail usually uses a bread knife to cut perennials and divide other plants such as hostas and daylilies but no bread knife was up to this task. She hosed off the root system while I went to the shed and grabbed a tree pruning saw, the kind with the 32" blade. This one was fairly new and still had a sharp blade. In minutes I had the monster cut into three pieces, each a foot or more in breadth and sporting many root buds.

Peony roots are quite brittle and no amount of care will keep pieces from breaking off. In this case I cut off two nice sections, each with 8-12 buds. Half the mother system remained as one additional piece because I had truly run out of energy.

The customer will be very pleased with her purchases and although flowers will be limited or perhaps nonexistent next spring, the following year the bloom count will be spectacular and the plant will look as if it has been in the garden for a long time.

Planting peonies requires thinking about a good location because no one would want to go through this digging performance very often. By overdigging a hole and placing a well mixed selection of amendments, your peonies will last a long, long time. As years pass, the flower scapes and flowers will increase in number and your friends and neighbors will offer praise and "how did you do-its" at the same time. Most garden centers still have some peony roots for sale and many nurseries have some potted. Don't let the price scare you aware. They are worth every bit of the price tag. Don't believe it? Stop by 256 Peacham Pond Road and you can help dig a few. Reality will come quickly, I guarantee it!

With fall gardening wishes from the mountain above Peacham Pond where birds and beast curl close to cover as the rain drops heavy to the ground.

George Africa


Gardenista said...

I bought a peony root in 2006 and it didn't produce any blooms for me this year. Your post makes me feel better about that though. Hopefully next year I have some luck!

George Africa said...

Good morning Gardenista!
I wrote in an earlier post that it's important to keep peony roots well watered when they are setting buds. This is mid August here in New England so something like 6 weeks after your flowering time. The water will make a difference and you'll probably be so impressed you'll do it every year. I notice from your blog, Northern Exposure Gardening that you are located on a river. Between the soil type and the water that probably leaches underground, my guess is you have a great location.

Sometimes peonies take an extra year on top of the year planted depending on the root size at the time of planting, soil fertility and planting depth. Keep the top of the roots no deeper than 1.5-2" deep. Deeper and you'll have fine foliage but limited or no flower production.

Some readers might be interested in tree peonies which are very interesting. A great source is Rick Rogers nursery, Brothers Herbs and Peonies in Oregon. He's on-line at He has lots of tree peonies and is a very valuable resource. His father Alan wrote an excellent book "Peonies" published by Timber Press.

Good Gardening!
George Africa

Gardenista said...

Thanks for the reply!