Miss Floribunda: Success with peonies

March 18, 2015

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Supermarkets, nurseries and hardware stores are tempting me with all kinds of summer bulbs and even peonies. I’ve bought these flowers in the past but few have lived after I’ve planted them at the time recommended on the packages. A certain number of the gladiolas and dahlias have eventually popped up, but few of the lilies or anemones ever have. I have a zero success rate with the peonies, so beautiful in the photographs that I never resist taking one more chance. Yet I just can’t believe they’d be for sale if everybody failed with them. Somebody told me to put them in the refrigerator until planting time,, which I did, using labelled freezer bags. That failed too, which just about broke my heart. Please tell me what does work.

Disappointed on Decatur Street

MISS FLORIBUNDA —

MISS FLORIBUNDA —

Dear Disappointed,

Keeping your purchases cool is the right idea, but not in a moist place and not in plastic by any means. You will notice that, often, the packaging for summer bulbs are made of paper with netting to allow them to breathe. You would do well to open any plastic bags within that packaging and put the contents in paper bags. The right temperature to keep most of them is between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dahlia tubers and gladioli corms stay viable at 50 degrees and even a bit above, so that is probably why you’ve had better luck with those. A cool dry basement, attic, or enclosed side porch is ideal for storage. Cover with a cardboard box to keep light out if you have no closets in those areas of your home.

Avoid buying anything that has already sprouted. If some have sprouts, put them in peat moss and keep moist (not sopping wet) till after frost when you can put them in the ground. By the way, anemones will not come up if you don’t soak them overnight or at least plant them during a very rainy week.

The sale of herbaceous peony tubers at this time of year is almost perverse. I consulted my peony professional, Virginia Li, and she told me they are best planted in autumn — just as chrysanthemums are best planted in spring. The purveyors of plants prefer to tempt us when we are most likely to buy, which is near the time we envision them blooming. It’s a caveat emptor situation. If you’ve already succumbed to temptation, Virginia advises you to plant your peonies in pots now and let them develop, still in a cool place but with more light. Mix lots of perlite with the sterile potting soil, because peonies are susceptible to root rot. Take the pots outside in May, and keep them in semi-shade during the dog days of summer. Prepare the ground where you hope to see them bloom. The soil should not be too acidic, so add bone meal and/or wood ashes to it. It will take several weeks for these elements assimilate well. Meanwhile, keep the pots moderately watered and don’t be alarmed if they seem to die back somewhat.

In October, plant them in the spaces you have prepared; and be careful not to plant them too deep, or they will not bloom. About two inches of soil should cover the tubers. Be patient. It usually takes a couple of years before they produce flowers, but after that they will keep blooming for decades if left undisturbed. If they get crowded and you must separate them, please wait till autumn. Additional advice from Virginia: a good companion plant is mint, both as a ground cover when the blooms die back and as an ant repellant. It is a myth that peonies need ants in order for blooms to open. The ants don’t really harm the peonies, but they do invade the house in bouquets.

To discuss these and other of your gardening concerns, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, March 21, from 10 a.m. to noon. It will be hosted by Heather Olsen in her home at 4915 42nd Avenue. Weather permitting, we will sit in her garden among daffodils.