Royal pundits have been betting that peonies will feature in Meghan Markle’s wedding bouquet. So how do you grow these most fragrant and feminine of flowers in your garden? Hannah Stephenson advises.
In the early days of dating Prince Harry, Meghan Markle posted a picture of a beautiful pink and white spray of peonies on Instagram, with the caption: ‘Swooning Over These. #London #peonies #spoiledrotten”.
You too could have peonies flowering in your garden come early summer, and some will be at their best around the time of Britain’s royal wedding in May. Their blousy blooms, in shades from deep red to white and everything in between, add a touch of glamour to borders and, if you can bear it, you can cut them and bring them indoors.
How easy are they to grow?
Pretty easy, in the right conditions. The pot-grown peonies you find in garden centres can be planted at any time of year, while bare-rooted types are ideally planted in October.
They prefer heavier soil in a sunny or slightly-shaded spot, and add plenty of organic matter to the planting hole before you start.
Don’t let them get waterlogged, though. Add horticultural grit if the soil is extremely heavy.
Don’t plant them too deeply— the soil should just cover the topmost tuberous roots. Mulch them lightly in February or March with potash-rich wood ash to increase flower production.
If you want huge flowers (but fewer of them), debud the sideshoots in April or May with a sharp knife.
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Will they flower the first year?
You might be lucky, but peonies don’t like being moved or replanted, so it may take a year or two for them to settle in before flowering. If you are transplanting existing plants, do it in early autumn or spring, keeping the rootball as intact as possible.
How long will the flowers last?
That largely depends on the weather.
Vast bowls of petals emerge from thick stalks above the pretty foliage in late spring and early summer, which will need supporting with a stake or frame to stop them falling over in the wind.
The flowers of herbaceous peonies are shortlived, lasting little more than a week or two, and if it rains they won’t last that long, as wet weather tends to make them flop, particularly the heavy, double flowered forms.
Any recommended varieties?
If you want huge pink fragrant double flowers, try Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, which is favoured by commercial cut flower producers. Familiar favourites include P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’, a deep red, frilly double cottage variety, or if you want a larger tree peony, growing up to 2.5m, consider P. ludlowii, which bears zingy yellow saucer-shaped flowers.
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For a longer flowering period go for ‘Bowl Of Beauty’, a Japanese type which flowers for almost twice as long as the others and has a fantastic fragrance, growing to around 90cm, so it will need staking.
Any rules for cutting?
Don’t cut stems in their first year of planting. Leave the plant to strengthen a bit and you’ll have more blooms to cut the following year. Always leave at least a third of the stems on each plant, which will help it gather strength and feed the root through summer and early autumn.
Floral designer Judith Blacklock, founder of The Judith Blacklock Flower School (judithblacklock.com) in London, explains: “You must cut peonies in bud but there must be some colour showing in the bud or it won’t open.”
She recommends pairing peonies in arrangements with astrantia and Alchemilla mollis.
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Peonies are thirsty cut flowers, so fill up your vase every day with fresh water and they should last about a week. Snip off the base of the stems every couple of days to help them last a little longer.
“Remove the lower foliage but don’t discard it as you can mass the leaves together and they will look gorgeous,” Blacklock adds. “The cooler the atmosphere inside, the longer the flowers will last.”