Saturday 21 April 2018

Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: The peony rose is a hardy and long-lasting addition to the garden

The peony rose looks like an exotic beauty, but is a hardy and long-lasting addition to the garden

Peony flower
Peony flower

Diarmuid Gavin

In 2011, I was planning a planting scheme for the Irish Sky Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. I knew that on the ground I wanted an undulating green landscape that represented aspects of the natural landscape where I come from.

However, up above in the huge 'hanging basket' - which was planned as a garden pavilion which would slowly rise above the throngs - I needed something different, a floral mass floating in the sky. And in that third week of May I realised that peony roses would be my anchor plants for the basket.

Peony roses encapsulate the sometimes exotic nature of gardening. For me, they represent the wonders of another era of Eastern living and exoticism depicted in numerous paintings, prints and fabrics.

The incomparable luxury and strange beauty of their velvet petals and distinguished stamens wrapped up in luxurious foliage points to them as being the perfect evolution and refinement of all flora.

When I happen on them in a border, or even as cut flowers set in a vase, my heart marvels at this world of gardening.

Before the herbaceous borders explode with colour in late June, the peony will provide glamorous and showy flowers (as early as March, depending on the species) and right through to early summer. Planting peonies in combination with other herbaceous material can keep your own flower show going strong from spring right through to early autumn.

The early flowering varieties can be paired with spring primulas, while iris, campanulas and hardy geraniums will provide good companions to this beauty in summer.

And despite their exotic appearance, they are very hardy creatures and will last for years with relatively low-maintenance requirements.

It's important not to plant them too deeply as this can lead to less flowers -the top of the crown should be no deeper that 2in below soil level.

Be careful to mulch around the crown in spring and not on top of it, as this will bury the crowns deeper.

Mulching will help keep moisture in as they won't flower well if their buds dry up in a period of drought.

Ideally, plant in autumn, but it's also possible to plant in spring and, as with other plants, if it's container grown it can be planted all year round. However, they're not ideal candidates for container growing as their roots are chunky and like to spread out.

Peony roses like rich, well-drained soil, neutral or a little bit alkaline. In spring apply a balanced fertilizer and to prevent them flopping over, a semi-circular metal frame is an ideal support to show off those lovely flowers.

It's often thought that you can't move peonies once planted, but it is possible if you are careful when digging up the tuberous roots, as these can snap. The best time to do this is in autumn.

You can propagate from seed but you will need plenty of patience as they will take up to five years to flower, and it's essential that you obtain fresh seed for reliable germination. Alternatively, you can try division in autumn.

First out of the traps with flowers is P Cambessedesii, the Majorcan peony whose pink flowers can be spotted as early as March. This, like many of the peonies, has really attractive foliage. 'Molly the Witch' - as P Mlokosewitschii is affectionately known - pushes her dark red shoots out of the soil in spring, followed in late spring by exquisite single lemon blooms.

But it's the lactiflora varieties that are the real showstoppers. Always a favourite is 'Sarah Bernhardt' with its deliciously fragrant double blooms in cherry pink and blossom pink. It's great for cut flowers and as it's a bit taller than most - this would be good at the back of a border for June to July flowers.

Also in a mouth watering pink is the popular 'Monsieur Jules Elie' with bright green foliage.

'Kelway's Glorious' is a stunning white variety with a beautiful fragrance. It was bred by Kelways nursery, one of the oldest nurseries in Britain - founded in 1851 - which specialises in breeding peonies. Browse their website,, for sumptuous examples of peonies, or contact them by phone on +44 1458 250 521 for further information.

Nearer to home, I've met the wonderful growers from Leamore Nursery, in Cronroe, Ashford, Co Wicklow, at various plant fairs.

They have some wonderful peonies, but due to access issues they are mail-order only. Peruse their website,, to find some delightful varieties and have them posted.

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