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On a recent trip to am unnamed box store for some spring renovation supplies, we were surprised to see intersectional peonies offered along with the standard spring selection of dahlia tubers and gladiolas bulbs. It was only a few years ago that intersectional peonies, hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies, were so rare that they could only be found at specialty nurseries such as ourselves. Today, thanks to increased importation of Dutch grown intersectional peonies, they are found more frequently at less specialized nurseries and garden centers. However, as many of you know, not all peonies are equal.

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Don’t be fooled by the snazzy packing of ‘their’ peony. What’s the horticultural  equivalent of ‘lipstick on a pig?’

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You don’t much gardening experience to see the stark difference in the quality of these two plants. Not only is our ‘Cora Louise‘ much bigger, it is also so much fresher and healthier.

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We try our best to educate our customers and any interested gardener on how to successfully grow peonies. Our youtube channel has videos on planting as well as care of peonies.  If you have further questions you can always call us at (860) 283 1042 or email us at kasha@treepeony.com. We are dedicated to helping you grow beautiful peonies!

The banner says it all.

The banner says it all.

We invite you to Cricket Hill Garden’s 25th anniversary peony festival this spring. Despite the long winter and late thaw, we are confident that it will be our most spectacular season to date at Peony Heaven. Some of the tree peonies in our display garden are reaching an impressive size. If you are in the area of northwestern Connecticut, please come and say hello, stroll the garden, bring a picnic to eat by the pond, and most of all enjoy the peonies. As always, the garden is open to the public and there is no admission fee.

Tree peonies in our sales area.

We will have a fine selection of potted peonies for sale at the nursery this spring.

We are happy to accommodate garden clubs and other groups. There is no fee for this, but we do ask that you make an appointment for a large group in advance. Give us a call at 860 283 1042 or email kasha@treepeony.com to make arrangements.

Our garden and nursery is located in the picturesque hills of Litchfield county. There are good restaurants, other beautiful gardens and endless hiking trails in the area. Have a look here for a little peak at what our leafy corner of Connecticut has to offer.

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The area around the Litchfield green offers antiques, art galleries and good restaurants.

Cricket Hill Garden Nursery Hours Spring-Summer 2014

  • April 1st to April 12th open Thursday-Saturday 10am-5pm
  • April 15th to June 22th open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm
  • After June 22th, by appointment only

2014 Peony Festival Schedule

In selecting peonies to add to your garden, its important to know when they will bloom.

April through early May

The anticipation builds...

The anticipation builds…

May 10th-20th

Early Chinese tree peonies and hybrid herbaceous peonies.

Early Chinese tree peonies and hybrid herbaceous peonies.

May 11th Mothers Day: We celebrate mothers with the with specials on selected potted peonies.

May 21st to June 8th

Tree peonies blooming at Cricket Hill Garden. Here we ahve interplanted hosta, and allowed some digitalis to self-seed.

Peak bloom period at Peony Heaven. Chinese, Japanese and hybrid tree peonies all blooming. Mid-season herbaceous and early interesectional peonies also in flower.

May 26th Memorial Day: Specials on selected potted peonies at the nursery.

June 10th t0 22nd

Late season P. lactiflora herbaceous and intersectional (Itoh) hybrid peonies.

Late season P. lactiflora herbaceous and intersectional (Itoh) hybrid peonies.

These projections are our best guess based on the current forecasts for the coming spring. If things really heat up in April, these bloom estimates will change. We will update our information as the season progresses. Feel free to email us at kasha@treepeony.com or call (860) 283 1042 for up-to-date peony bloom information.

Among the three types of peonies- tree, herbaceous and intersectional, there are a variety of growth habits. Along with sun requirements, the mature form of a given variety is an important consideration when planning to add a peony to your garden.

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Tree peony form are classified as upright, spreading and semi-spreading.

Tree peonies, like other woody perennials, are comprised of a thicket of stems which emerge out of the ground from the root system.  Tree peony growth habits are categorized according to the angle at which the branches grow relative to the ground.

Upright form tree peonies

Upright form tree peony blooming in Beijing, China. Note how the yearly growth has been removed so the majestic woody structure of the plant is clearly visible.

Upright form tree peony Sichuan Peach Blossom, blooming in Beijing, China. Note how the lower leaf  growth has been removed so the majestic woody structure of the plant is clearly visible.

Upright form tree peonies tend to be vigorous varieties with comparatively long annual growth. Stems and branches grow upwards, at a narrow angle to the ground. The example shown here ( Sichuan Peach Blossom) is about 6 ft. tall and 6 ft. wide, and has been pruned of lower leaves and small branches to allow an uncluttered, open form of the shrub.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include: most cultivars in the Chinese rockii and Japanese groups, some Central Plains Chinese and hybrid tree peonies.  Final mature height will vary between 4.5 to 7 ft., depending on the cultivar. In our plant descriptions, we do include the mature height of our cultivars.

Landscape uses: Tree peonies with upright growth habits make excellent display plants. Do not be intimidated by the height, keep in mind that tree peonies are slow growing plants which take 10-15 years to reach their mature size. Vigorous cultivars can also be kept smaller with yearly pruning. Grow in USDA zones 4-9, with at least 5-6 hours of sunlight.

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The Sun 太阳 Taiyo Japanese tree peony

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Phoenix White 风丹白 Feng Dan Bai Chinese tree peony

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High Noon hybrid American tree peony

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Luoyang Red 洛阳红 Luo Yang Hong Chinese tree peony. This plant would be well served with a pruning to remove some of the interior, crowded growth.

Spreading form tree peonies

Color of Eternity wan shi sheng se Chinese tree peony.

Color of Eternity 万世生色 Wan Shi Sheng Se is a good example of a spreading form tree peony.

The branches of the spreading form tree peonies expand out diagonally to the ground, so that the plant width is much greater than the height. This type seems slower growing than upright habit tree peonies.  At maturity, tree peonies with spreading growth habit measure between 2.5-3 ft. tall and 3-5 ft. wide.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include:  Some Central Plains cultivar group of Chinese tree peonies (includes many of the historic Chinese varieties), some hybrid tree peonies.

Landscape placement: Mixed perennial border or foundation planting. Also very attractive planted on a raised terrace which allows for easy viewing of downward facing flowers. Ideal for smaller gardens. Grow in USDA zones 4-9, with at least 5-6 hours of sunlight.

Necklace with Precious Pearls

Necklace with Precious Pearls 璎珞宝珠 Ying Luo Bao Zhu Chinese tree peony

Zhao's Pink

Zhao’s Pink 赵粉 Zhao Fen Chinese tree peony

Peach Blossom Complexion

Peach Blossom Complexion 粉面桃花 Fen Mian Tao Hua Chinese tree peony

Semi-spreading form tree peonies

Gold Sand

Gold Sand in a Black Ocean 黑海撒金 Hei Hai Sa Jin is a Chinese tree peony with a semi-spreading form.

The semi-spreading growth habit is characterized as being an intermediate between the upright and the spreading types.  Typically dimensions at maturity are between 3-4 ft. tall and 3-5 ft. wide.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include: All cultivar groups of tree peonies have some varieties which can be classified as having a semi-spreading growth habit. The majority of hybrid tree peonies are semi-spreading.

Landscape placement: Very versatile, can be used as either a focal specimen plant or as part of a more diverse garden setting in a mixed shrub and perennial border. Grows  in USDA zones 4-9,  requires 5-6 hours of sun to bloom well. Tree peonies will grow in full sun, but the flowers fade more quickly. Morning sun, afternoon shade is ideal.

Coral Terrace

Coral Terrace 珊瑚台 Shan Hu Tai Chinese tree peony

Big Deep Purple

Big Deep Purple 大棕紫 Da Zong Zi Chinese tree peony

Species Herbaceous Peonies

P. japonica remains a small plant even when mature. This photo was taken at the New York Botanical Garden.

P. japonica remains a small plant even at maturity. This photo was taken at the New York Botanical Garden.

There are approximately 25 species of herbaceous peonies which can be found in the wild over a wide swath of Eurasia, from the Mediterranean to Japan. They are lower growing plants, between 1 to 2.5 ft. tall.  Some species, like P. japonica, remain small plants which will not exceed more than 1.5 ft. wide.  Others, like P. macrophylla will become large clumps with time, up to 3 ft. wide.

Landscape use: Some species, like P. japonica are ideal for the shady margin between the deciduous forest and the garden. Other species require full sun. All add delicate color to the early spring garden. Be aware that many species peonies will have their foliage die back in the heat of summer.

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P. officinalis,  this central Asian species of herbaceous peony will reach 20 inches tall and form a large spreading clump when mature.

Lactiflora type Herbaceous Peonies

Variteies of P. lactiflora account for many of the best known herbaceous peonies.

Varieties of P. lactiflora account for many of the best known herbaceous peonies. This particular one is a Cricket Hill Garden seedling.

Cultivated varieties of P. lactiflora account for the vast majority of herbaceous peonies in commerce. This species, which is native to China, forms a tall, upright bush, generally 3.5 ft. tall and wide. Some are single form flowers, while others are fully double form.  Some cultivars are weak stemmed and require support, while others have markedly stronger stems. We have test grown more than 150 herbaceous peony cultivars in 25 years and have discarded many because their stems are too weak. We select out the better peonies to propagate and sell, those with vigor and good stems, fragrance, unique form and color.

Landscape uses: Devoted beds or borders.  A widely adaptable garden favorite for generations,  used in mixed perennial borders with at least six hours of sunlight, to a full day of sun. Will grow in USDA zones 3-8.  Some herbaceous peonies will grow and bloom in zone 9, but must be planted just below the soil surface.  Difficult to establish in zone 9 due to dryness and lack of winter dormancy.

Some cultivars of P. lactiflora herbacoeus peonies were selected for flower size alone.  Such varieties have a dendency to droop down. They make excellent cut flowers but are less desirable for landscape plantings.

Some cultivars of P. lactiflora herbaceous peonies were selected for flower size alone. Sarah Bernhardt has a tendency to droop down. They make excellent cut flowers but are less desirable for landscape plantings.

Hybrid Herbaceous Peonies

'Lois' Choice'

‘Lois’ Choice’ is a compact growing plant, reaching 2′ tall and about 3′ wide.

Hybrid herbaceous peonies are the result of crosses between different peony species. Sizes within this broad group are quite variable, between 2.5-4.5’ tall and 2.5-3.5’ wide. Many of these hybrids were first created in America, in the mid-t0-late 20th century.

Landscape uses: The wide range of flowering times and diverse plant habit make these widely adaptable landscape plants. Many of the new hybrids have been selected with an eye for stunning flowers as well as good stem strength. Used in mixed perennial borders with at least six hours of sunlight, to a full day of sun. Will grow in USDA zones 3-8.  Some herbaceous peonies will grow and bloom in zone 9, but must be planted just below the soil surface.  Difficult to establish in zone 9 due to dryness and lack of winter dormancy.

'Early Windflower'

‘Early Windflower’ has good height and spread, about 3′ tall and 4′ wide.

Intersectional or ‘itoh’ hybrid peonies

These are hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies. Well formed bushes grow to 3-4 ft. tall and wide.

'Court Jester' intersectional peony

‘Court Jester’ intersectional peony

Landscape uses: Well suited for mixed perennial borders or foundation plantings. The plants require 6 hours or more of sunlight.  The foliage is attractive from early spring to the hard frost. The foliage will die back in late autumn and is cut down, to re-emerge in the spring. Clumps get larger over time. For USDA zones 4-9.

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings.

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings. The yellow flower in the foreground is Garden Treasure.

flying dragon tree

The cold hardiest citrus is an interesting addition to the northern edible landscape. At Cricket Hill Garden, we have sturdy 2-3 year old seedlings, organically grown (non-certified), available for spring and fall shipping.

Peonies bloom in a wide range of forms, from simple, elegant singles to massive doubles with more than 300 petals. In China, where the peony has been cultivated for over 2000 years, growers have developed a rather complex system for classifying tree and herbaceous peony blossom shapes. Peony culture has a much shorter history in Europe and the United States. The system used by American growers to classify peony flower shapes is less specific than that used in China. At Cricket Hill Garden, we try to use the Chinese system for classification of flower forms. We feel that it is a better tool for recording the nuances between different cultivars. While a shorthand of single, semi-double and double is perfectly adequate for understanding the basic difference in peony flower forms, the Chinese system is for connoisseur gardeners with a well developed appreciation for the subtleties of the nature of the flowers.

Its somewhat akin to drinking tea or wine; while a black Lipton’s teabag is fine, and Mondavi is drinkable, others find joy in the perfect blend of a select plantation tea or discovering a new 90 point expert’s vintage.

Historically in China the preference amongst gardeners seems to have been for extravagant double blossoms. We have had experience growing these over the past 25 years and some of them are very difficult to bloom in the true form. The soil and nutrients have to be in balance, a double form flower will not perform well in less than optimal soil.

Over the last several decades, Chinese peony breeders have made many newer introductions of flowers with lighter, more open forms.  The vast majority of Japanese peonies are single or semi-double. American growers have largely adopted the lighter form preference, dismissing large double blossoms as “ungainly.” As a result most hybrid tree peonies selected by America breeders for propagation are single or semi-double form.

American gardeners, however have a continued devotion to large flowered double herbaceous peonies. Despite their weak stems, the big ‘poufy’ peony is still a favorite. What we have tried to do in our trials is select the best growing habits of the hundreds of peonies we have tried. When we recommend a tree or herbaceous peony, it is because we know it performs well, blooms easily and will have more than adequate stem strength. That is why you see a very discriminating ‘edit’ of our peony offerings, we want the best performers as well as the most stunning forms and colors.

The flower forms on the chart and the examples that follow show some of the best cultivars in each category.

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The classical Chinese system for identifying peony flower forms.

Note the definitions of the forms as well as examples of peonies which bloom in the given form.

Single: 1-3 layers of petals that are large, wide and flat. Stamens and   pistils are exposed. These flowers are normally fertile.

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Cup of Shining Night‘ 夜光杯 Ye Guang Bei Chinese Rockii tree peony

phoenix white

Phoenix White‘ 风丹白 Feng Dan Bai Chinese tree peony

pk jade

Pink Jade‘ 粉玉 Fen Yu Chinese herbaceous peony

empress wu's yellow

Empress Wu’s Yellow Peony Heaven hybrid herbaceous peony

Lotus (semi-double): Large and close fitting petals in 4-5 slightly overlapping layers forming the shape of a lotus flower. Both stamens and pistils are exposed.

Jade Plate White Yu Ban Bai

Yu Ban’s White‘ 玉班白 Yu Ban Bai Chinese tree peony

murmatsu cherry

Muramatsu Cherry 村松樱 Muramatsu Zakura Japanese tree peony

Big Deep Purple

Big Deep Purple‘ 大棕紫 Da Zong Zi Chinese tree peony

high noon

High Noon‘ American Lutea hybrid tree peony

Chrysanthemum (semi-double): Counting 6 layers of petals which gradually decrease in size towards the center. Stamens can be normal, or somewhat petaloid (where the stamens become petals). Pistils are normal.

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Minnie Shaylor‘ American herbaceous peony

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Multi-Colored Butterfly 花蝴蝶 Hua Hu Die Chinese tree peony

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Garden Treasure (Hollingsworth) Intersectional ‘itoh’ hybrid peony

Rose (semi-double): Counting 6 layers of petals, which are usually larger than the chrysanthemum form. Petals are larger on the outside than on the inside. Stamens and pistils are somewhat or mostly petaloid.

'Bartzella' (Anderson, 1986). This blossom measured over 9'' in diameter!

Bartzella‘ (Anderson, 1986) intersectional ‘itoh’ hybrid peony. This blossom measured over 9” in diameter!

Luoyang Red Luoyang Hong

Luoyang Red 洛阳红 Luoyang Hong Chinese tree peony

hibiscus with a pk complex

Hibiscus with a Pink Complexion‘ 肉芙蓉 Ru Fu Rong Chinese tree peony

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Twin Beauty‘ 二桥 Er Qiao Chinese tree peony

Anemone (double): 2-3 outer layers of wide and straight petals. Stamens are completely petaloid and have become small narrow petals. Pistils are either normal or reduced. Under the American system of classification, this form is known as “Japanese.”

'Purple Phoenix Feather' Zi Feng Yu 紫鳳羽

Purple Phoenix Feather Zi Feng Yu 紫鳳羽 Chinese herbaceous peony

dragons nest

Dragons Nest‘ American herbaceous peony

philomile

Philomele French herbaceous peony

Hundred Proliferate (double): Many- layered double, having the appearance of two merged and overlapping flowers. This is a common form, with many lactiflora type herbaceous peonies falling into this category.

riches and honor

Riches and Honor‘ 大富贵 Da Fu Gui Chinese herbaceous peony

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Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower‘ 乌龙捧盛 Wu Long Peng Sheng Chinese tree peony

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Flying Swallow in a Red Dress‘ 飞燕红装 Fei Yan Hong Zhuang Chinese tree peony

cinnibar phoenix

Cinnabar Phoenix 丹凤 Dan Feng Chinese herbaceous peony

Golden Circle (double): 2-3 outer layers of large petals. Most of the stamens are petaloid, but a ring of normal stamens remains and has the appearance of a golden circle between the narrow interior petals and the wide outer petals.

This is a rather uncommon form, though many of the more complex double flowers will bloom in this form when young or when not adequately fertilized.

yellow with big leaves

Yellow with Big Leaves 大叶黄 Da Ye Huang Chinese tree peony

Thousand Petal Crown (double): Wide and expansive outer petals. Stamens are completely petaloid and usually have the appearance of becoming larger from the exterior to the interior of the flower. The center of the flower is raised.

Historically, this was by far the most popular flower form in China. Many, though not all, of the cultivars which bloom in this form have flowers which are so large and heavy that they are side-facing, or down-facing. This does not mean they are all hidden flowers, they bloom from the side view rather than on top of the plant.

fragrant jade

Fragrant Jade‘ 香玉 Xiang Yu Chinese tree peony

'Color of Eternity'

Color of Eternity‘ 万世生色 Wan Shi Sheng Se Chinese tree peony

yao's yellow

Yao’s Yellow‘ 姚黄 Yao Huang Chinese tree peony

'Luster of Jade' Jing Yu

Luster of Jade‘ 景玉 Jing Yu Chinese tree peony

Hydrangea Globular (double): All stamens are completely petaloid with shapes and sizes similar to those of normal petals. Pistils are petaloid or reduced. These flowers are said to resemble hydrangea blossoms are well as xiuqiu, embroidered silk balls which are a traditional handicraft in parts of China.

This is a rarely encountered form. Cultivars which bloom in this shape require optimal growing conditions to do so because the flowers are so large.

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Pure Red Gold‘ 大红赤金 Da Hong Chi Jin Chinese herbaceous peony

There are some peony shapes which do not fit neatly into the above categories. An example is the “lion’s mane” form of tree peony blossom which was very popular in Japan in the 19th century. These flowers are typically semi-double and ruffled. These shaggy flowers are not as popular today and rarely seen in commerce.

'White Jade Lion' 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the 'lion's main' form.

‘White Jade Lion’ 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the ‘lion’s mane’ form.

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Blue Jade in Three Colors‘ 蓝玉三彩 Lan Yu San Cai Chinese rockii tree peony blooming in both its mature and immature flower form.

Peonies which do not have access to adequate nutrition will not bloom up to their potential.  Flowers on poorly fertilized plants will be smaller and simpler than their true form.

Peonies show alternate shapes and will often not bloom in their mature form when young. This is especially true of the more complex forms of tree peonies. The mature age for a tree peony is usually considered to be about ten years old.

Many of the full flower forms we offer now will bloom well by 5-6 years of age. We have discarded hundreds of peonies as too slow to bloom or too difficult to grow over the past 25 years. What we offer in 2014 is a result of the many years of trial growing here in Connecticut.

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Yao’s Yellow, blooming in an incomplete form with missing petals.

Walking through our newly planted orchard at Cricket Hill Garden on a cold, clear day in winter our eyes are drawn to the dormant buds on our fruit trees and shrubs. Distinguishing between vegetative leaf buds and flower buds is a good skill to develop, especially as the late winter pruning season approaches. Also, though it is certainly a case of eating your pawpaws before their ripe, one’s mouth can’t help but begin to salivate looking at all these fat flower buds.

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Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a large fruited native tree. The leaf buds are narrow and close to the stem. The flower buds are round and usually found lower down on a branch than the leaf buds.

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Pear (Pyrus ssp.) leaf buds form on one year old growth.

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Pear (in this case Asian pear Pyrus ussuriensis)  flower buds form on 2-3 year old wood. These buds may develop into fruit spurs in future years.

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Apricot (Prunus armeniaca) buds are rather inconspicuous and held close to the branch on 1st year growth.

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Apricot flower buds form in small clusters.

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Persimmons (Diospyros ssp.) flower off of new growth, so flower buds will not be apparent until growth commences in the spring.

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Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) vegetative buds appear on first year, reddish colored stems, while flower buds are plumper and form on older growth.

Have a look at edibles section of our website for plants which will add beauty to your garden and bounty to your table.

Spring memories sustain us at Cricket Hill Garden in the stark cold landscape of winter. Conjure that peony blossom, inhale deeply, and one can be lost in the fragrance of those luscious petals.

'Jade Crown with a Blue Belt' Chinese rockii tree peony

A single blossom can put one in a trance.

Winter is the time for planning and dreaming of the garden, remembering the past season and what was successful and what needs to improve. If we are to consider peony plants as part of the broader landscape plan, the questions of placement and design are numerous.

Tree peonies blooming at Cricket Hill Garden. Here we ahve interplanted hosta, and allowed some digitalis to self-seed.

Tree peonies blooming at Cricket Hill Garden. Here we have interplanted hosta, and allowed some digitalis to self-seed.

This is especially true as one considers the subtle, yet distinct characteristics of peony varieties. When planning peonies in the landscape, we may choose to consider the color, form and fragrance, as well as bloom time and foliage.

Before adding peonies to your landscape the first consideration is whether the location has the right amount of sunlight.

  • Planted in the deep shade, almost all peonies will grow weakly.
  • Tree peonies will grow vigorously in the full sun, but the flowers fade quickly. Some cultivars are also susceptible to leaf scald in the summer sun. For these reasons we recommend planting tree peonies in a partially shaded location. An eastern exposure, or in a location with dappled sunlight is ideal. Five to six hours of sun makes them grow well.
  • Herbaceous and intersectional or itoh peonies both need as close to a full day of sun as you can provide, or a minimum of 6 good hours of sun. Without this, they will be weak and not bloom well.

A mixed garden bed with tree and herbaceous peonies would be ideal in 6 hours of sun.

Peonies in dappled sunlight.

Peonies in dappled sunlight.

Sometimes a garden bed will have different areas of more and less sunlight due to the shade of trees or a building, so plant your peonies accordingly. Tree peonies in the shade protected areas and herbaceous in the more sunny spots. The old garden adage holds especially true for peonies, ‘ Right plant, right place.’

The other necessity for peonies is good soil. Peonies planed in poor, unimproved soil will not grow or flower well.

  • All types of peonies need fertile and well drained soil.
  • Peonies appreciate a soil high in humus and organic matter. Peonies also need a range of trace minerals to bloom well. A neutral pH of 6.5 is optimal. Peonies planted in poor soils with a low (acidic) pH will never thrive or bloom satisfactorily.
  • Never plant peonies in an area where there is standing water at anytime other than the very early spring when the ground is still frozen. Waterlogged soil will suffocate the roots of peonies and is a leading cause of a gardeners failure with peonies.

If  your desired planting site is not already suited to growing peonies, do not despair, advanced preparation can make many areas of the garden hospitable to peonies. Poor soils can be amended with compost and rock powders for minerals. Ground limestone will raise the pH to the desired level. For soggy areas, making raised beds will ensure good drainage. For detailed information on soil preparation for peonies, see our blog post

Within the three types of peonies- tree, herbaceous and intersectional hybrids- there is great diversity of bloom time, flower color, form and fragrance. Plant habit and size at maturity also differ. One may even delve into the nuances of shades of color and foliage form. Peonies can be understood and appreciated on a number of levels.

Mature rockii tree peony.

Mature rockii type tree peony. With their silken blooms and majestic stature, the long lived tree peonies are known in China as the “King of Flowers.”

Tree peonies (Paeonia suffoticosa, Paeonia lutea, Paeonia rockii and other species) are very long-lived, relatively slow growing deciduous woody shrubs which bloom in the mid-spring. Our collection of several hundred tree peony cultivars usually blooms over a six week period, from the first week of May to mid-June in our zone 6a Connecticut climate. Tree peonies will grow and flower well in USDA zones 4-9.

The longer the winter season lasts, the later the flowers will appear. In northern climates, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire, tree peonies bloom about a month later than we see them here in Connecticut. In warmer climates, such as the Carolinas, tree peonies bloom in April, and some places in California see their tree peonies open in March. It all depends on how long the winter season lasts and the buds are dormant.

Tree peonies blossom in a range of colors, from pure whites, pinks, purples, to deep wine reds, bright yellows and silvery apricots. Flowers are formed in a variety of shapes, from elegant singles to massive ‘thousand petal’ doubles.

peony flower forms

Tree peony plant habit can be as compact as 2.5′ tall by 3′ wide or a large as 6.5′ tall x 5′ wide. Most plants do not reach their mature size until 10-12 years of age.

tp growth habits1

The woody stems are strong on most all cultivars, especially the Chinese tree peonies. We have seen older Japanese tree peonies produce weak stems which do not hold up their flowers. Some types are genetically weaker and there is nothing to do but stake them, or avoid growing them. All of the tree peony cultivars we grow and sell do not need staking, so let our experience be your guide.

Tree peonies should be planted 4-5′ apart on average. The larger growing rockii cultivars, such as Snow Lotus, Purple Butterfly in the Wind, Black Tornado & others need 6′ apart to spread.

Try to plant at least 3′ away from foundations and 6-10′ away from trees and large shrubs. The roots from most trees will interfere with the tree peony roots and take away moisture and nutrients. Smaller perennial plants, bulbs and ground covers may be interplanted, but keep the area around the immediate base of the plant open to allow for good air circulation.

We are often asked about cutting tree peony flowers. You can do so, but cut short, 6" green stems before the flower is fully open. For display indoors, tree peony blossoms are best cut and floated in a bowl of water. One flower is a complete arrangement!

We are often asked about cutting tree peony flowers. You can do so, but cut short, 6″ green stems before the flower is fully open. For display indoors, tree peony blossoms are best cut and floated in a bowl of water.

Peonies at Dusk White peonies blooming along the porch send out light while the rest of the yard grows dim. Outrageous flowers as big as human heads! They’re staggered by their own luxuriance: I had to prop them up with stakes and twine. The moist air intensifies their scent, and the moon moves around the barn to find out what it’s coming from. In the darkening June evening I draw a blossom near, and bending close search it as a woman searches a loved one’s face. Jane Kenyon

Herbaceous peonies are the classic late spring flower; valuable for use in the landscape and adored for cut flowers.

Herbaceous peonies are very hardy, long lived and relatively carefree perennials.

This group includes over twenty different species; notably Paeonia lactiflora, Paeonia japonica, Paeonia macrophylla as well as hybrids derived from crossing two or more of these species. There are literally hundreds of named cultivars, though many are no longer in production, or are very hard to find.

Herbaceous peonies can be grown easily in USDA zones 3-8. In zone 9, some micro-climates will support the chill requirements needed to bloom.

The various species of herbaceous peonies and their hybrids bloom over a very long period in the spring. In Connecticut, zone 6a, the earliest types bloom in late April and the late season plants bloom in the middle of June. So by choosing different kinds, you can extend the range of bloom period. The majority of herbaceous peonies grown today will be the lactiflora type and these bloom in the mid-to-late period. We see these from late May to mid-June.

Like tree peonies, herbaceous peony blossoms come in a wide variety of forms.

Like tree peonies, herbaceous peony blossoms come in a wide variety of forms.

Herbaceous peonies come in a wide range of colors and forms. Since they lack the strong woody stems of tree peonies, many herbaceous peonies with large double flowers tend to flop over if left unsupported in the garden. We tend to avoid peonies with these habits and offer peonies with better stem strength. Over our 25 years of growing, we have grown out hundreds of named variety herbaceous peonies. Many peonies bred for the cut flower trade do not make good landscape plants; the stems are weak. This problem can be avoided by selecting cultivars with stronger stems and more proportionate flowers. All of the herbaceous types we currently grow offer better stem strength and most do not get any support in our display garden. The most we will do is a few well-placed bamboo sticks at cross angles to support the heaviest flowers in bloom.

After the bloom, herbaceous peony foliage provide a textured green background to summer flowers.

After the bloom, herbaceous peony foliage provide a textured green background to summer flowers.

After the bloom period, most herbaceous peonies will retain their lustrous deep green foliage into September, though some species type loose their foliage during the summer. In the fall, herbaceous peonies, like other non-woody perennials, are cut to the ground in the garden clean-up that should be done after the freeze.

Intersectional peonies offer an array of desirable characteristics to the garden designer.

Intersectional peonies offer an array of desirable characteristics to the garden designer.

Intersectional or Itoh peonies are crosses between tree and herbaceous peonies. They are the newest darlings of the peony world. Most were hybridized late in the 20th century and new types are still being introduced. They exhibit the flower forms of a tree peony on a herbaceous bush. Plants grow to an average size of 3-4′ tall and wide, though some are shorter. Blossoms come in a range of colors, from lemon yellow, to lilac and scarlet. Most are sized from 7″ to 10″, making them quite extraordinary. Stems develop good length and flowers can be cut with 12-16″ stems for arrangements. Fragrance is good, usually with a lemon scent or light spicy-sweet fragrance. They are not as fragrant as the best tree peonies, but are valued for their color palette and ease of growing. They are grown very much like the herbaceous peony, with a full day of sun, or at least 6 hours.

The bloom time of intersectional peonies coincides with the end of the tree peony bloom and the beginning of the lactiflora type herbaceous peonies. An individual intersectional cultivar will bloom over a long period, with primary buds opening first and then secondary buds opening a week later.

Herbaceous and intersectional or itoh peonies should be planted 3′ apart on average. The same spacing is suggested from foundations and tree roots for the same reasons of competition and crowding. This type of perennial planting may look sparse for a couple of years and that is why we suggest trying non-agressive perennials, annuals and bulbs as an interim step to getting your garden bed to look more full and balanced. We have heard of professionals who bend the spacing rule and crowd more plants into the garden bed to make it look full immediately. This means that in just a few seasons the bed will be overcrowded and plants will have to be moved. Overcrowding also makes for more fungal problems because the air does not circulate and foliage is more likely to stay wet and breed disease.

In selecting peonies to add to your garden, its important to know when they will bloom.

In selecting peonies to add to your garden, its important to know when they will bloom.

Below is a rough breakdown of the bloom times of the various types of peonies. During very warm springs this period is very compressed. We have listed here a few cultivars for each bloom period. In the cultivar descriptions for our tree, herbaceous and intersectional peonies on our website we list the bloom period. (Dates given in parentheses are when a given group of peonies will bloom in our USDA zone 6a garden in Connecticut)

Very Early (late April to early May in northwest CT)

Species herbaceous peonies:

  • P. japonica
  • P. emodi

Early (Second week of May in northwest CT)

Hybrid herbaceous peonies:

Early Chinese tree peonies:

Mid-Peak Bloom (Third week of May to early June in northwest CT)

Mid-Peak Chinese tree peonies:

Rockii Chinese tree peonies:

Japanese tree peonies:

Lutea hybrid tree peonies:

Late (Memorial Day to second/third week of June in northwest CT)

P. lactiflora herbaceous peonies:

Intersectional or Itoh hybrid peonies:

With the sun and soil requirements understood, and a good outline of what to expect in the three types of peonies, it is apparent that they can be used in numerous ways in the landscape.

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Trees and large woody shrubs set the boundaries of a landscape, they give it depth and breath. Upon this backdrop, perennials and annuals are added; these smaller plants give a landscape texture and detail and purpose.

Plants define areas of the landscape and help people connect to it through colors, fragrance, sunlight and shade, fruit and flowers. The contemporary American gardener enjoys creating a space that enhances their home and defines a place to relax and enjoy nature.

Peonies in Borders and Devoted Beds

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

In composing a border with peonies, keep complementary heights, colors, bloom times and fragrances in mind. Tree, herbaceous and intersectional (itoh) peonies can all be combined in a border with about six hours of sun, but they should be planned with their individual attributes of size in mind.

A bed of Japanese tree peonies in full bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

A bed of Japanese tree peonies in full bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

We like this combination because of the longer bloom period that is achieved by planting the three types of peonies together. Most climates can see a 5 to 6 week range of bloom once plants are established. Tree peonies bloom first, early to mid-season herbaceous and itohs next, then the late blooming herbaceous finish the show. At Cricket Hill Garden, we see early May to mid-June bloom most years. High heat in late May or early June will shorten the season for us.

For landscape plantings, plants which hold their flowers well and continue to have good foliage throughout the season are good candidates. The American Peony Society created the Award of Landscape Merit in an effort to help growers and gardeners select herbaceous and intersectional peonies with “superior ornamental value, overall appearance in the landscape and throughout the growing season, and reliable performance across North America”. This current list is by no means comprehensive of all cultivars that meet these criteria. Nonetheless, it is good start to identify reliable cultivars with strong stems that hold their flowers well. We hope that in the future the Award of Landscape merit may also be bestowed on outstanding tree peonies.

Some of our favorite herbaceous peonies with good stem strength are: Moonstone, Coral Charm, Coral N Gold, Golden Purple Sunset, Purple Phoenix Feather, Maiden’s Dress and Minnie Shaylor.

Most gardeners have a limited space to work with and existing plants to consider. Mixing peonies with other perennials and annuals allows for variance in texture and color for the entire season.

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Peony foliage in the foreground of the high summer view.

As much as we advocate using peonies in the landscape, we also readily admit their shortcomings from a landscape perspective- they only flower for a relatively short period in the spring. However, with an appreciation for the various foliage forms peonies can provide an interesting textured background for summer flowing annuals and perennials.

tp leaf types1

Tree peonies all have three point compound leaves. Some however a much finer than others. Also, tree peony leaves can be disgusting as either having glossy or matte green foliage. Herbaceous peonies also display a wide range of variety within a basic form of an elliptical leaf. Intersectional peonies all have glossy green foliage with a leaf shape which resembles the P. suffoticoa type Chinese tree peonies.

Some species and hybrid herbaceous peonies die back during the heat of mid-summer. Herbaceous peonies like Early Scout, and P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’ should not be planted in an location where it’s early foliage loss will create a hole. Instead plant a cultivar which looses its leaves early at the end of a border or bed.

CUTTING GARDEN

Devoting an area of the peony garden for cutting is a way to enjoy the luxerious double blossoms of the late season peonies without having to worry about them being ruined by the rain.

Devoting an area of the peony garden for cutting is a way to enjoy the luxurious double blossoms of the late season peonies without having to worry about them being ruined by the rain.

As a general rule, herbaceous and intersectional peonies make better cut flowers than tree peonies. This is because the long, 12+ ” herbaceous stems of these two types are ideal for flower arranging. Many of the classic P. lactiflora herbaceous varieties such as “Sarah Bernhardt” and “Festiva Maxima” were developed for use in the European cut flower market. We get so many questions from gardeners who have inherited peonies in their garden or purchased unnamed cultivars and then struggle with these weak stemmed flowers. Using peony rings to prop up them up is a lot of extra work. If a gardener is so inclined and if space allows, a section of the garden, or even an island away from landscaped vistas, can be set aside solely for growing peonies with large flowers. Cutting these and bringing them inside to enjoy as soon as the buds are partly open is the only sure way to keep these gorgeous, but weak stemmed varieties from flopping over after the first rain.

Peonies as Display Specimens

We have had a variety of creeping siedum in the garden for years. It forms a thick mat by early summer and does a good job of smothering other weeds. If it gets too close to the peonies, its easy to pull out and replant in another area of the garden.

We have had a variety of creeping siedum in the garden for years. It forms a thick mat by early summer and does a good job of smothering other weeds. If it gets too close to the peonies, its easy to pull out and replant in another area of the garden.

Using peonies as the focal point of an island bed in the middle of a lawn or in a small raised bed is ideal for showcasing tree peonies. Tree peonies grow on average 4’ tall and wide. The majority grow in this size group, though some grow only to 3’ tall. The largest growing tree peonies, the rockii type from northwest China can reach 6.5′ tall and 5′ wide at 10-12 yrs. Older plants develop a sturdy, majestic structure. The foliage is finely textured and contributes to the interest after the blooms have past. If space permits, consider a long blooming peony island with taller growing tree peonies in the background and lower growing herbaceous or intersectional in the front.

Along Fences, Walls and Foundations

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings.

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings.

Here peonies are given a backdrop that does not compete for moisture or nutrients in the soil. Apply the same principles of space and sunlight, color and form, and size of plants when planning a peony border against fences and stone walls.

Intersectional peonies make good candidates for this use with their uniform height and long bloom period. The herbaceous stems have the advantage of re-growing every year and thus can be planted near walkways or driveways, sparing the plant any snow damage in the north. Tree peonies have to be placed away from heavy snow loads, as the branches could be damaged if heavy snow is piled on top.
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