A week for writers and lit lovers

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Meditation on Peonies

Very pale pink peonies. Photo taken in my garden July 2013 

A Meditation on Peonies 
by Joan M. Baril

The peonies own July in the North and they make the most of it.  They start strong and never let up.  In the early spring, they arrive as a clump of fat red shoots, unmistakable and not to be trifled with.  If they are stepped on, they do not sulk and go bloomless for the season like the picky lily shoots. Instead, bent or broken, they revive.
            Peonies need cages early and big cages too.  Only young peonies are happy with regular size tomato cages. The cage that is composed of a single metal ring and a few legs to hold it up is, in general, a laughable and useless item except for the youngest plants.
            Mature peonies need a big peony cage but, alas, no cage yet made will contain a mature plant in my garden.  So, I make do with the fat cages and set them upside down with the prongs pointing upwards.  The very large and tall tomato cages do for the taller, thinner plants.  The greenery soon fills and overflows these constraints.  Occasionally, in the course of the summer, the cages start to lift on one side because of uneven ground or because these muscular plants push them around. The best anchor is a sandbag made of a green or dark plastic bag the size of a grocery bag and filled with sand and tied with a twist.  This sort of bag sits heavily on the ground wire and holds the lower wire of the cage in place better than a brick or even a stone.  A peony can lift a cage held down by a stone or brick but not a sand bag or two.
            At this pre-bloom stage, peonies will not fall down or be blown over by storms; nevertheless, it is always easier to put the cages on in late May than wait until the plant fills out.  By June, the gardener must keep her eye out for the first flower buds and have the tie wire ready.  The peony throws up a long stem for its flowers. In my garden this stem can be four feet tall or more.

            As the buds fatten into veined globes, the gardener loops them up with light wire and anchors the ends to the cage.  Later more will be needed. Wire works better than cord because wire holds its shape and can be molded and stretched and tucked to reach out and gather in wayward fronds.
At the same time as I am looping the wire around and about, I look out for ants.  Ants are a sign of my sworn enemies:  the aphids. But I am ready with soap spray. Some believe a peony needs ants but not! The ants are after the aphids and both have to clear out pretty damn quick or face the Soapy Spritz of Death.
            I have six peonies, most of them white. When I first started the garden twenty-five years ago, I was infected by the idea of the White Garden, a moonlit garden in the famous Sissinghurst Gardens in England.  But I found the all-white scheme unsatisfying and restricting. I switched to a combo of blue, pink and white because I was enchanted by a bluish-pink peony at Hyatt’s nursery and begged Mr. Hyatt to sell it to me.  Next, I added lime green nicotania. Pale lime green sings in a garden, especially aligned with cream and pink. At one time, I had sweet peas growing up the sides of the garden shed and who can resist sweet pea colours?  Then some purple tulips and a blazing gold day lily showed up. Now it is Liberty Hall and all beauty is welcome.
            A garden is a work of art, a moving work of art that changes every season and every year. Northern gardeners have to be philosophers. They never know what will survive the winter. In a strong snow year, plants get moved around. My bearded iris is six feet away from where it was last summer.  Somehow, under the snow or under the melting ice water, it packed its bags and moved. But the peonies stay where they root and laugh at the winters.
            In June, the days are so long and the sun so strong that the weeds muscle in and have to be removed. Or not. A tansy arrived and I let it stay. Daisies are always welcome as are the blue campanula volunteers.  This year I let a buttercup grow in the front garden.  And at the end of the month, the peonies are ready and steady, slowly expanding into a fountain of flowers.
Peony plants live a long time. My sister has my father’s peony in her garden, first planted in 1948 or so.  Last year it produced over a hundred blooms.  But in southern Ontario where she lives, the flowers last only a few days in the heat. Here in the north, the peony blooms can last two weeks of more.
            It is said a peony blooms for a hundred years, and so, long after this gardener is gone, my peonies may possibly bloom on.
Peonies all along the fence.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, wonderful. I never have tried peonies and didn't inherit any. I was glad to see a reference to tansy. I DO have an abundance of white tansy and with the Shastas, they make a nice white welcome. Your garden is enviable. My neighbors built a fence one foot short of the property line. In that tiny space, the two women (or one of them) laid stark white gutter downspouts right in my face (so to speak) even though they have a shed. I must begin a hedge row and trellises of ivy or other vine to hide those shiny snakes in the grass!!! LoveP