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Peonies

In the great parade of spring flowers, long-lived peonies have earned an honored place. They are often called Memorial Day flowers; in much of the country, the peak of their bloom season is in late May and early June. Even after the flowers fade, peonies are impressively luxuriant plants, anchoring flower beds and providing a handsome backdrop for summer blooms.

Peonies are bushy plants with handsome, deep-green foliage. Their wrinkled, wine-red shoots emerge from the soil in mid spring. About the time the tulips fade in the garden, round green peony buds begin to swell on the ends of flower stems that may reach two feet or more in length. If the weather stays cool, the plants will bloom for two weeks.

Where winters are cold, peonies flourish, but early-blooming cultivars, especially, will grow and bloom happily in southern gardens. The plants thrive in rich, loamy, well-drained soil in light shade; about six hours of sun, preferably soft morning light, is ideal. Give them space to grow — mature plants will be about three feet tall and wide. To plant them, dig a generous hole and mix your garden soil with compost. The hole should be deep enough to accommodate the roots, but don’t bury them too deep: the growth tips at the top should only be about two inches below soil level. To avoid planting too deep, some gardeners set the growth buds right at ground level, and build soil up over the top.

Old-fashioned peonies like Sarah Bernhardt and Karl Rosenfield have deeply fragrant, classic double flowers. They are excellent cut flowers: once the plants are established, they will produce so many blooms that you can cut extravagant bouquets for the house and still have plenty of flowers to enjoy outside in the garden.

Newly planted peonies will bloom after their first full season, but it usually takes a few years before a healthy plant produces a dozen blooms. It’s worth the wait, and well-situated plants can be expected to live for decades with little care. You can count on passing prized peony roots on to your grandchildren. It’s quite a legacy.

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