Planting prima donna peonies

– Posted in: How-to, Peonies, Plant info

The peonies from Reath’s came on Monday the 7th, but because of various commitments I couldn’t plant them until Thursday. They came wrapped in plastic with wood shavings to keep them damp, and then the whole shebang was packed in straw or hay–the first time I ever saw that used as a shipping material. I was anxious about leaving them go for so long, alternately fearing they would dry out or rot from too much moisture. I opened up the plastic bag and kept checking them to reassure myself. At night I would seal the bag back up.

I figured each plant would get a 3 ft. by 3 ft. space, which is what I gave all the other peonies in my “hedge” along the driveway. On Wednesday I asked my fifteen-year-old son Lachlan to dig a 3-foot by 6-foot hole for the peonies. Reath’s suggests “planting them in a site with good dark topsoil to a depth of 2 feet.” Lachlan managed to dig down about 15 inches using a mattock and a shovel. He put all the soil (which was, of course, for the most part, neither “good,” nor “dark,” nor “topsoil”) on a tarp. And then, it took me a whole day to plant two peonies. Since peonies can live for more than 50 years, and since ‘Bev’ was sixteen bucks and ‘Rozella’ was twenty-five bucks, and since Reath’s recommended it, I figured it behooved me to give them the royal treatment.

My first step was to take my trusty rock rake and remove as many stones as I could from the bottom of the hole. The rock rake is one tool I feel rather ambivalent about. We have so many stones in our soil it is usually not worth the bother to remove any smaller than the face of my hand, so the purchase of this tool was rather a self-indulgence. I found the catalog copy seductive; the idea of flinging rocks over the fence humorous. So it was difficult for my frugal nature to justify the purchase. And yet, I do use it–just not all the time. So, I was using it to prepare the royal treatment for my peonies.

After removing the rocks, it was time to get some compost. We only have lazy-man’s compost around here; we put it in a bin, and when the bin gets full, we move it to the next bin, and then the final bin. Consequently, compost in the final bin has lots of stuff still in it. That’s why I like to sift it. My son Rundy built a wooden frame sized to fit over our wheelbarrows and stapled hardware cloth to it. It works just fine, but it’s heavy. Rundy, who lifts weights, picks it up and shakes it to sift. I rest it on the wheelbarrow and shovel compost on top of the screen. Then, using a gloved hand, I push the compost around the screen until the good stuff has all fallen into the wheelbarrow. Then, saying a prayer for my back, I pick the frame off the wheelbarrow and dump the remains into bin #2 to compost some more. And I repeat the process until the wheelbarrow is full or I have as much compost as I need. That morning Justin (7), Owen (5), and Caleb (2 1/2) helped me sift. Fortunately, I had at least one child-sized glove for each of them. Unfortunately, the compost kept getting down the wrists of their gloves. We sifted until the compost came up to the level of the sifter. Then it was time to get a “big boy” to dump it for me.

Now, this wheelbarrow holds 6.5 cubic feet, but since we couldn’t fill it quite to the top, we’ll call it 6 cu. ft. So I figure, spread out over 18 sq. ft., that’s 4 inches of compost. (I didn’t figure it out until just now. And if somebody knows a good calculator on the web to figure out these kinds of things, I’d appreciate hearing about it.)

I shoveled soil from the tarp on top of the compost in the hole–what I eyeballed to be an amount equal to the compost. Then I pulled the rock rake through it again, to get the rocks from the soil out. I also turned up quite a few crocus corms, which had been planted in the lawn here before it became peony territory. The rock rake helped mix the soil and compost together, which was fortunate, as the hole was still too deep for me to turn it over with my garden fork without stepping into the hole, which I did not want to do, as it would compact everything I’d worked so hard for. Next came a load of composted goat manure. We don’t have goats anymore, and my son recently cleaned out the goat pen so we could use it for storage. The goats had hay for bedding, so the goat “berries” were liberally mixed with half rotted hay. I shoveled the most rotted stuff into the wheelbarrow, and wheeled it to the peony pit myself. It was a lot lighter than the compost.

I repeated the soil shoveling and rock-raking procedure. Then my “work crew” helped me sift another load of compost, and I added my final load of soil. After rock-raking I used the garden fork to thoroughly mix everything. Finally, it was time to plant.

Reath’s recommends planting the peony roots so that the eyes are 1 to 2 inches below the surface of the soil. This is standard advice. (The eyes are the buds that will be next years sprouts.) What they don’t tell you is that these eyes are on very irregularly shaped roots, and arranging the roots in the ground so that all of the sprouts are the same depth under the soil is something of a puzzle. To get all the eyes pointing up, I wound up planting the roots so that most of them were closer to parallel with the soil level instead of perpendicular to it. Digging, of course, was a piece of cake after all that soil preparation. I didn’t even use a shovel, I just scooped the soil with my hands. It is easier to gauge the distance from the sprouts to the soil level if you throw a tool handle or a board across the planting site to the firm ground on either side. Don’t use a shovel handle, though, because it has a bend in it that will throw things off. After covering the roots with soil, Reath’s recommends you cover the planting area with 1 1/2″ of bark mulch in cold climates. This is not standard advice. Most articles I have read tell you not to mulch at all. However, since Reath’s is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Zone 4 rules, I figure they know whereof they speak. I haven’t put the mulch down yet. I am not sure if it should go down before or after the ground freezes.

Rundy asked me why I sifted the compost. Why not just let it rot in place? I couldn’t give him an answer. I hadn’t thought it about. After some consideration, I think I understand my own motivations better. For one thing, they were expensive plants, and the more I have invested financially in a plant, the more I tend to baby it. But in all honesty, I can’t say that sifting the compost will help the peonies grow better. The motivation is more emotional. Between caring for my infant daughter, which cut into my gardening time, and our drought, which cut into my pleasure in the garden, I had been feeling “garden-deprived.” The day I planted the peonies, the soil texture was as good as our acid clay ever gets, and I just wanted the luxury of really well-prepared garden soil. It made me feel rich.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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