All About Gardening and Gardening Q & A by Pernell Gerver

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"Growing the Many Different Types of Peonies"

Peonies are the queens of the late spring perennial garden. They are among the longest-lived perennials, often living 75 years or more. Once established, they will flower for many seasons to come. In bloom in the garden now, it's hard to top their big, bold flowers. Click on a plant name to order it from Pernell Gerver's Online Store.

An established peony clump can be up to three feet tall and as wide with a dozen or more large, colorful flowers. Its deep-green, glossy leaves are large and deeply divided. The foliage remains attractive in the garden all season long. Because of its clean, nicely-textured foliage and clumping growth habit, peony can be used as a small shrub border when planted close together.

Peonies come in a wide range of flower colors including white, cream, yellow, pink, red, and rose. Flower forms can be single, semi-double and double. Single forms have a cluster of bright-yellow stamens in the center of the flower, providing a striking contrast to the flower petals.


When a peony is loaded with its heavy blossoms, it has a tendency to fall over, especially after a heavy rain. To prevent this, early in the season set a plant support ring over the plant just as it's beginning to grow. As the peony grows, its stems will grow through the grid inside the ring and be supported. Tall flower stems can be individually staked as well to keep the stems from falling over.

Peonies grow and bloom best in full sun, although in my garden they get by with part sun and they bloom relatively well. Sometimes a peony growing in full sun will fail to bloom. When this happens, it's most likely planted too deeply, resulting in what's called a "blind peony." Peony has buds on its roots called "eyes" and should be planted so the eyes are no deeper than two inches below the surface. This includes mulch. If it's planted deeper than two inches or if mulch covers the crown too deeply the peony won't bloom. Keep mulch away from the center of the plant.

There are dozens of varieties of peony with flower colors to suit every taste. One of my favorites is called 'Raspberry Sundae.' It's a beautiful double peony with a row of creamy-white outer petals surrounding a cluster of ruffled, raspberry-pink center petals. It really does look like a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with raspberries. Its flowers are six inches wide or more and very fragrant. It grows to about 30 inches tall.


Peony 'Edulis Superba' is an early-blooming variety. What I like most about this peony is its fragrant blossoms. It bears many fully-double flowers with ruffled petals that are intensely fragrant. The flowers are pink with a deeper-rose center. It reaches three feet tall or so.

Double fernleaf peony has a look unlike most peonies. It has finely-divided foliage instead of the broad, divided leaves most peonies have. The finely-divided foliage has a feathery appearance and is quite attractive. It bears large, fully-double, deep-red flowers. It's a shorter peony, only growing 12 to 15 inches tall. It also blooms earlier than most peonies. It's in full bloom in my garden right now.

Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground in winter, but there is one type of peony, called tree peony, that does not. While it doesn't really grow to tree heights, it does have a woody stem that can reach four feet tall or more. The bare stem of tree peony is topped with foliage from early spring to fall. The flowers are held atop the foliage. Flowers are large, easily six inches across or more and bloom in shades of white, pink, red, maroon, salmon, and lavender. Tree peony blooms a little earlier than herbaceous types. It's in full bloom in mid to late May. Unlike herbaceous peonies that need full sun to grow and bloom best, tree peony grows and blooms well in partial shade and actually prefers it.

Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Winterkilled Rhododendrons Can Regrow"

Q. We loved your columns in the newspaper and are glad to read them here on your Web site. You answered our question about what seems to be wrong with our rhododendrons (before we even asked!). Should we remove the curled dead leaves and prune back the branches or leave as is? Thank you and happy gardening!

A. I have received many questions from readers regarding winterkilled leaves on their broad-leaved evergreens like rhododendrons and mountain laurel. It's a widespread problem again this year. Damage ranges from just a few leaves or shoots affected to entire plants. It's sad to see old, large specimens that have been completely winterkilled.

Rhododendrons have the ability to regrow, even after being pruned back severely. The first thing to do is a "scratch test." With your fingernail, scratch the cambium (the outer surface of the stem) beginning at the tips of the shoots to see if it's still alive. If the tissue appears green where you scratched, then the stem is still alive. If it's brown, then continue down the stem until you find green. This is the point where you would prune back the dead stems now. In some cases, this may be a severe pruning, but the plants will regrow and eventually sprout new shoots from that point.

Prevention is key. A reader from Southwick reported that she sprayed her rhododendrons last fall with an antidesiccant as I had recommended and she had no damage at all. This fall the broadleaved evergreens should be sprayed with antidesiccant to prevent winterkill from happening again next winter.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone to know the extent of the damage on your rhododendrons and how they responded after being cut back.

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