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Archive for the ‘Peony Garden Design’ Category

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.

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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.

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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:

  • P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’

Early Chinese tree peonies:

  • Supreme Pink

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

Mid-Peak Chinese tree peonies:

Rockii Chinese tree peonies:

  • Black Tornado

Japanese tree peonies:

  • King of Flowers

Lutea hybrid tree peonies:

  • Happy Days

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

P. lactiflora herbaceous peonies:

Intersectional or Itoh hybrid peonies:

  • Old Rose Dandy

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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As the fall planting season approaches, we are thinking about were to plant a few new tree and herbaceous peonies, as well as moving some overcrowded older tree peonies to more suitable locations. Planning new areas of the garden or renovating older sections requires some imagination and a knowledge of your soil and conditions. How much sun do you have? At least 6 hours?  It is work, but it is fun as you imagine how spectacular the blooms themselves will be and how the plants interact with the rest of the landscape.

In planning your own garden, its may be interesting to consider how peonies are treated in China and Japan versus how they are traditionally used in landscapes in western Europe and America.  In both east Asia, western Europe and America,  all types of peonies play an important role in the spring garden. There is a distinction in how they are used, whether they are showcased or planted as part of ‘mixed’ border.

In China, and to a slightly lesser extent Japan, peony flowers, and particularly tree peony flowers, are held up as the ideal, unsurpassed by any other flowering plant. This judgement was rendered hundreds of years ago by Chinese literati; poets and painters, and has in China become part of the cultural lore. This is why tree peonies are the national flower of China. As a result, whole gardens in China are devoted to tree peonies, especially in Louyang, Beijing, Shanghai and Heze. Many of these older public gardens were formally private, belonging to wealthy gentry, which were only opened to the “people” after the 1949 Communist revolution in China. Private garden culture as we know it in the U.S. does not exist in Chinese cities, space is valuable and many millions of people live in modern highrise apartments and condominiums. Chinese farmers in the countryside would grow a peony or two, but growing space is too valuable to be used for many ornamental plants.

It is in the public gardens where the peonies are celebrated. Tree peonies are grouped with 3 to 5 or more of the same kind for a mass bloom effect. In these plantings of hundreds or thousands of specimens there is no need for inter-plantings of anything which would flower either before or after the peonies. Herbaceous peonies are planted in these gardens, often reserved for sunnier areas, as borders around walkways. The herbaceous peony does not hold the same exalted status, and in history they have been known as the “medical root”. In the past 40 years, more herbaceous peonies in China have been developed as an ornamental plants and valued as a bloom extender, since it blooms after the tree peonies. The overall effect of these all-peony gardens is a glorious, riotous bacchanal of fragrance and color for about 2-3 weeks, with the rest of the season a quiet sea of green shrubs.

Mass tree peony planting at the Hundred Flowers Garden in Heze, Shandong province, China.

Mass tree peony planting at the Hundred Flowers Garden in Heze, Shandong province, China.

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About ten years ago, The National Peony Garden in Luoyang was planted with thousands of tree peonies.

Mono-culture plantings of peonies in China are living museums to the national flower, preserving and showcasing some cultivars which have been propagated for almost a millennium.

Tree peonies planted in the former imperial gardens in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

Tree peonies planted in the former imperial gardens in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

In this garden in Hangzhou, China the tree peonies to not face any copetition from companion plantings, thought they are beutifly contasted by the background foliage.

In this garden in Hangzhou the tree peonies to not face any competition from companion plantings aside from some mounding grasses and are beautifully contrasted by the background foliage.

Traditional tree peony gardens in Japan are similarly focused on the peonies, with very spare plantings of other plants.

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An early 20th century Japanese post card shows traditional tree peony plantings in Tokyo.

A tree peony planting in Tokyo, 2013. Note that the peonies are planted in a slighly raised terrace. This seems to be a coomon practice in Japnese tree peony plantings. There are many good reasons to do this, both practical and esthetic. The tree peonies benfeit from the excellent drainge afforded by the rasied bed and the bloosoms are displayed at eye level for all to admire.

A tree peony planting in Tokyo, 2013. Note that the peonies are planted in a slightly raised terrace. This seems to be a common practice in Japanese tree peony plantings. There are many good reasons to do this, both practical and esthetic. The tree peonies benefit from the excellent drainage afforded by the raised bed and the blossoms are displayed at eye level for all to admire.

In America, botanical gardens with peony collections have often planted them according to the Chinese and Japanese plan, in large groups which have an otherworldly visual effect and also serve to showcase these historical and culturally significant plants.

Tree peony collection at the New York Botanical Garden.

Tree peony collection at the New York Botanical Garden.

While it is not the scope of the post to begin a long treatise on design and influences of our modern American gardens, we in America are a motley group from all corners of the world, bringing our favorite plants with us when we can. Plants remind us of our homes and our history and our relations.

Countless people tell us that the peonies remind us of their grandmother, who grew them for decades. The rewarding thing about growing a peony, both herbaceous and tree, is that once settled in a good spot, they do thrive for a very long time, outliving countless perennials. They are survivors, and have a rich history intertwined with our growth and settlement.

A few species of herbaceous peonies are native to western Europe. The ancient Greeks recognized these as important medicinal plants and as gardens shifted from purely utilitarian, producing food and medicine, to ornamental, peonies remained part of the mix. The famous 19th century English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll advocated the use of peonies as part of mixed perennial border. Jekyll also designed gardens in the United States and her ideas were influential here. She drew her inspiration from an idealized notion of the traditional English cottage garden, that had a succession of bloom and remained colorful during a long growing season.

Peonies in the cottage garden 'A Devon Cottage' by Claude Strachan, 1865-1935.

Peonies are depicted in ‘A Devon Cottage’ by Claude Strachan, 1865-1935.

In this arrangement, peonies (usually herbaceous) play an important role in providing late spring-early summer color, but they are by no means the main attraction of the garden.

Hebaceous peonies as part of formal English or American garden. Lillies and roses are interplanted and will provide color after the peonies have faded.

Herbaceous peonies as part of formal English garden, with lilies and roses interplanted. These shrubs and perennials will provide color after the peonies have gone to all green.

Another often seen treatment of peonies, again mainly herbaceous,  is to devote an entire border or bed to them. Herbaceous peonies make great plants for cut flowers.

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

Allowing three feet of width for each plant, borders are often one to three plants wide (3-12 feet) and of a length suitable to the overall size of the garden. These peony borders can be planted according to color, flower form, or fragrance. When planning a peony bed its important to keep plant height and bloom sequence in mind. Taller plants are kept to the back and early bloom varieties are interspersed with mid- and late season cultivars. This provides a balanced look which is colorful throughout the peony season.

Rather than following any set plan, many gardeners allow imagination and their own taste to guide their use of peonies in the landscape.

Tree peony 'L'Esperance' in a formal setting at the National Trust's Hidcote Garden, Gloucestershire.

Tree peony ‘L’Esperance’ in a formal setting at the National Trust’s Hidcote Garden, Gloucestershire.

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 inter-planted hosta and creeping phlox (phlox subulata) in areas of partial shade.  Allow tree peonies at least 6 hours to bloom well.

In parts of the garden, we do inter-plant spring bulbs which bloom with the tree peonies.

In parts of the garden, we do interplant spring bulbs which bloom with the tree peonies. These tulips bloom in May.

In some areas we have summer blooming perennials which provide color in July and August. Many different annuals can also be worked with into your peony bed, provided they are not too large to smother the peony plants.

In this shady area a tree peony grows with hellebores, pulmonaria and annual impatients.

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In this sunny area, herbaceous peonies grow backed by a tall border with bronze fennel, buddleia and hydrangea in full bloom in August.

Our next blog post will discuss an extended list of interplantings we have found successful at Cricket Hill Garden.

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