Photo: Steve Bender

Does the sight of spectacular perennials adorned with fragrant blossoms up to 10 inches across in a variety of colors leave you feeling bitter, angry, and victimized? If so, you may suffer from a behavioral syndrome psychiatrists call "peony's envy."

You are not alone. Many Southerners experience this affliction, because most peonies prefer areas with long, cold winters in order to bloom well. Some heat-tolerant heirloom types such as the white 'Festiva Maxima' fare well as far as the Lower South (USDA Zone 8), but most prefer the Upper and Middle South (USDA Zones 6-7) and points north. Grumpy photographed the peonies up top in Juneau, Alaska. They were blooming in July.

 

The peony farm. Feeling jealous? Photo: Peony's Envy

Peony's Envy is also the name of an 8-acre farm in Bernardsville, New Jersey that specializes in peonies. They grow more than 500 different kinds and ship them nationwide. They've put together a collection of heat-tolerant peonies that will bloom dependably in Zone 8. And right now is a great time to plant.

By crossing the traditional herbaceous peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) with an earlier blooming type, breeders came up with big-flowered, early-flowering plants that do their thing before the weather starts cooking. Early bloomers always do better than later types in the South. This Southern collection mainly offers coral and pink colors, but a few start out nearly red before fading. Here's a sampling.

 

'Coral Charm.' Photo: Peony's Envy
'Cytherea.' Photo: Peony's Envy
'Abalone Pearl.' Photo: Steve Bender
'Janice.' Photo: Peony's Envy

How To Grow Peonies When to plant: If you order roots for fall planting, plant them ASAP after you receive them. You can also plant in spring. Peonies in pots can be planted just about any time in the South.

Light requirement: Full sun. The more sun a peony gets, the more blooms you'll get.

Space requirement: Peonies grow about 3 feet tall and wide, so don't crowd them. They don't like root competition from nearby trees and shrubs.

Soil requirement: Fertile, well-drained, loose soil that contains lots of organic matter, such as composted cow manure, mushroom compost, and chopped leaves. The soil should have a near neutral to slightly alkaline pH (6.5 - 7.5), so if your soil is too acid, mix a couple of cups of lime into the soil when planting.

Patience requirement: If you're planting roots, it may take 2-3 years before the first good flowering. Potted plants should bloom more quickly. Established plants don't like being moved and may skip a year of blooming after transplanting.

Planting depth: Each root should have 2-3 bulbous buds called "eyes" at the top. Plant the root vertically with the eyes at the top. Make sure the eyes are no deeper than 1/2 - 1 inch below the soil surface when you finish. Any deeper and the plant may not bloom.

Fertilizer requirement: Feed them with a half-cup of 5-10-10 fertilizer per plant just as the shoots emerge from the ground in spring. Repeat this in early fall. Or use an organic fertilizer such as Espoma Plant-tone 5-3-3.

Grooming: Don't cut back foliage until it yellows and withers in fall.

Nice to know: If given a choice, deer don't like peonies.

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