Diarmuid Gavin: Paean to the peony
Peonies are the stars of the cottage garden style. Here's how to pick your perfect plants
Peonies are the epitome of blousy cottage gardening. Their luxury floral rosettes not only enhance any self-respecting colourful border, but also inspire artists and fashion designers who adore their sumptuous range of colour and layers of texture.
Both their foliage and flowers exude beauty - small wonder they have been the flower of choice for many modern brides in recent years.
I've been in planting form over the past few weeks, banishing all traces of that long, cold, wet winter through a total rejuvenation of my plant stock. I ordered tonnes of farmyard manure, bought new spades and forks, pumped up the wheelbarrow, and got to know some muscles I never knew I had.
And the star plants of the new scheme turned out to be Paeonia. My soil isn't wonderful so there was only one thing for it. With the radio wailing away in the background, I set to excavating what seemed like a quarry-load of stone, adding some drains, and conditioning the soil through the addition of dollop-loads of manure to every planting hole. With plants that produce lots of fruit or flower, this is necessary. Along with feeding hungry specimens, the organic matter will ensure that moisture is retained around the roots. If you plant them into rich, fertile soil, they will need minimal if any feeding thereafter. On poorer soils, you will need to feed with a slow-release fertiliser every spring.
For optimum flowering, plant where the peony will enjoy as much sunshine as possible. But the most important thing to remember when planting herbaceous peonies is that they don't like going in too deep - the tubers should be no more than an inch below soil.
Bear this in mind also when you are mulching your borders: don't bury the crowns in a thick mulch, just mulch around but not on top of the crown. Burying them is the most common reason for lack of flowers.
They like moist but well-drained soil so if your soil is a very heavy clay, it would benefit from having additional humus material added, such as garden compost or some grit to improve the drainage.
The most commonly planted peonies are the herbaceous varieties, with beautiful bowl-shaped silky flowers which die down over winter and then you see their fat, red buds poking through the soil in spring.
Best-known examples here are 'Duchesse de Nemours' with her delicious lemony white fragrant flowers, and 'Sarah Bernhardt', another old-fashioned favourite, which has beautiful rose-pink, fragrant double flowers.
However, there is another type called tree peonies (pictured above) - these are deciduous shrubs which form a permanent woody stem and usually have large, often spectacular, flowers. These like some shelter from frost, as their early blooms can be damaged. Check when you're buying these if they are grafted onto herbaceous rootstock. If this is the case, you will plant them quite deeply so you won't get suckers from the rootstock.
But did you know there is a third type of peony? These are called Itoh and are a crossbreed between herbaceous and tree peonies, combining the best characteristics of both.
A few weeks ago, I was in Bandon, Co Cork, giving a gardening talk to shoppers at the Co-Op. And their generous gift to me was a hamper full of delicious local cheese... and Itoh peonies. I went back to Dublin delighted with myself. These amazing hybrids don't need staking because they have a woody stem to support them but they don't grow to tree-peony size - they remain relatively compact like herbaceous peonies. They have the showstopping flowers of tree peonies and flower for longer, sometimes blooming twice. Like tree peonies, they have a wide range of colours including yellow, pink and apricot. And their foliage is handsome as well, turning red in autumn.
They are more expensive to buy but when you take into account their strong points, they are worth the investment. Choice cultivars to look out for are 'Cora Louise', the flowers of which are white with a dramatic magenta flare at the base of the petal; 'Bartzella' (above) for its beautiful golden yellow, lemon- scented blooms; and 'Hillary', for a dash of pink loveliness.