Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
June, 2008
Regional Report

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Huge blooms from this peony highlight the morning garden.

The Reliable Peony

The old-fashioned peony in my grandmother's garden had huge pink flowers and was the focal point in the flower bed. As a young child I would always marvel at the beauty of the huge blooms every June. Busy ants would scurry all over the emerging buds. She would tell me that without the ants the flowers would not bloom and so I left them alone to do their job. Ants and peonies just seem to go together in my own garden today.

Hitchhiking Ants
Contrary to this old belief, ants are not essential to making peonies bloom. They may become a nuisance, especially if you bring in cut flowers in which ants are feeding. Ants are seasonal companions of peonies because they feed on the nectar that's produced by the buds and blossoms. They will consume the sugary nectar from the buds and haul some back to the ant colony.

If you've not grown peonies, I really encourage you to give them a try. They are available in a variety of forms -- from double to single-flowered -- and come in a wide range of colors. Not only are the blooms spectacular, the dark green leaves are a good accent or backdrop to other perennials later in the summer. Then in the autumn the foliage will transform to handsome purple and red hues.

After-Blooming Care
Now that my peonies are beginning to wane and the flowers are fading, it's time to give them a bit of attention. I will start by cutting back the spent blooms and recycle them to the compost pile. This will tidy up the bush and allow the foliage to continue its process of storing energy for next year's colorful show.

If you spot any foliage that is showing signs of wilt or possible disease, cut the stems all the way back to ground level. This will prevent any infection from entering into the crown or base of the plant. Though peonies are not bothered by many insect pests, they are not immune to the invasion of summer grasshoppers. If this should become a problem, my preference is to use a naturally occurring microbe known as Nosema locustae. Once the spores are ingested by young grasshoppers, the microbes grow and the insect will soon die. The Nosema spores should be mixed with bait such as bran, and then applied around the plants. This treatment is best used when the grasshoppers are still immature and most vulnerable.

When the peony bushes are cleaned up, apply a thin layer of compost around them and lightly cultivate it into the soil. Scatter a slow-release organic fertilizer, such as 5-10-5, according to directions and water in well. Water the peonies deeply once every week or so, and that's about it.

Thriving on just a minimum of care, peonies are long-lived perennials. Some plants have survived for over 50 years in my relatives' gardens, a testimonial of their durability.

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