Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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‘Tis the season to keep growing

One of the joys of gardening, and one of the biggest frustrations, is that no two seasons are the same.

We all get lulled into thinking that we have finally got the hang of how to keep our gardens going well, and then Mother Nature comes along and lets us know who is actually in charge.

This past season has been an odd one, with much colder winter and spring temperatures than we have had for the past few years. Parts of my garden showed the effects. A lovely crested iris, similar to Iris japonica but not as hardy, that has established itself among some of the back border and has flourished extensively, has been badly affected by frost this year. Blooming has been very sporadic and the arching leaves atop the cane-like stems look terrible – burnt by frost and then attacked by fungus.

My Pacific Coast iris also had a terrible year. Many of the earlier flowering varieties were ruined by frost, and the main flush of flowering was at least two weeks later than usual. The same applies to the bearded iris, some of which are just coming into flower now, again weeks later than usual.

The peony flowers have been the same – they are usually in flower by the start of November, and peaking about ten days ago, but this year they are at least two weeks behind. I had been worried as I moved a lot of them in the autumn, and peonies can sulk when they are first planted out, refusing to flower until they are reestablished. That does not seem to have happened – most of the translocated varieties are going to flower, but they are two weeks behind their usual schedule, as are those that were not shifted.

The first to flower for us is always a New Zealand-raised tree peony hybrid called ‘Southern Beauty’. This has very unusually coloured flowers – the catalogues say they have a yellow base, with an orange/red tinge to the petals, but I have found the colour changes dramatically if seen in full sun or shade – it is much yellower when seen [or photographed] in full sun, but if in shade, the colour is much more orange.

Most tree peonies are derived from the species P. suffruticosa, but ‘Southern Beauty’ belongs to a group that have been crossed with another group of woody peonies, especially P. lutea and its cousins. We used to grow P. lutea var ludlowii in the garden. It has very attractive yellow flowers and is hardy and vigorous, but it also seeds very prolifically and, in the end, we removed it. I have to say it took its removal badly, and even now, several years after its displacement, I find seedlings popping their heads up.

As beautiful as they are, tree peonies are quite expensive, so most of us are content with growing the herbaceous kinds. We grow several varieties of these, starting with the very early flowering ‘Coral Charm’. This award-winning variety is one of the most popular for both commercial flower growing and for the home garden, with large flowers that open coral but then change through cerise, orange, cream and finally, almost white.

At the other end of the flowering season, we also grow ‘Sarah Bernhardt. A soft and very feminine pink, this cultivar has very fully-doubled flowers with a slight fragrance. It is an old variety – it was bred in France in 1906 – but it remains one of the most popular of all types.

Among the other cultivars we grow is the bright double red ‘Karl Rosenfeld’. There are plenty of double red varieties, but this is as good as any, I think. It has a very full flower and a pleasant fragrance – almost old-rose-like.

There are many other herbaceous varieties, ranging from singles through to very full doubles, and several anemone-centred forms too. The colours range from pure white to deep red.

Although the herbaceous and shrubby varieties are not too closely related, some clever horticulturists have been able to raise hybrids between the two types. They are generally called Itoh peonies, after the Japanese scientist who first managed the cross.

We have a couple of these cultivars, including the lovely bright yellow variety ‘Bartzella’. It grows with a habit in between that of its parents – it makes a slight attempt at establishing a woody structure, but it does not exceed about a metre in height. The woody structure means that the flowers are held more upright and are less prone to falling over when fully expanded.

All peonies prefer a sunny spot with dep, humus-rich soil – they will not thrive on poor, sandy soils. They prefer cold winters and are more difficult to cultivate successfully the further north you go. They like plenty of food, so it is a good idea to spread a little fertiliser around them in the summer.

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