If you want to go bold and blousy, peonies are for you. But do you have the space? | Gardens
When I found out I was moving to a flat with a garden of its own – the first I had access to as an adult – I celebrated by ordering bare-root peonies, variety ‘Coral Charm’. This was in July. They wouldn’t be delivered until October, wouldn’t emerge from the earth that winter and possibly, I read, might not bloom at all the next spring.
Nevertheless, I was determined: my balcony had offered neither the sunshine nor space to grow peonies. Gaining ground gave me both.
You would be hard-pushed to find a blousier flower. Ruffles of petals make up ample handfuls of blooms from May through to the hazy days of early summer. The flowers can be simple and bowl-like (the deep red ‘Chocolate Soldier’), reminiscent of anemones (the otherworldly ‘Instituteur Doriat’) or explosively frilly (hello, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’). They also range in colour from white to red to yellow, although it’s the blushing pastel pink that you will spot most often on Instagram and in wedding bouquets, where peonies have become a millennial fave.
There are three types: the tree peony (actually a shrub that will retain its woody growth throughout the year – good for a sheltered corner in a larger garden); herbaceous peonies, which die back over the colder months to return the following year; and intersectional hybrids – a combination of the two that are harder to come by.
For such a fancy-looking flower, peonies are surprisingly hardy and, with patience, reliable to grow. They will be available in bloom in garden centres now but you’re better off placing an order for bare-root herbaceous ones, which are best planted in a bright bed upon delivery in the autumn. Much fuss is made about how deep peonies should be planted: if they are too far beneath the surface they will be reluctant to flower. As long as the top – or crown – of a bare root plant (they will usually have the beginnings of tiny little leaves) is between 2.5cm and 5cm deep, you will be all right. Digging in some peat-free compost before you plant will help. Tree peonies appreciate a sheltered spot and are happier than herbaceous peonies if you have acid soil – both prefer it higher up the pH scale.
The larger challenge with peonies is whether a few glorious days of Barbara Cartland-worthy blooms can justify the square footage they occupy. I love seeing their scarlet alien stems emerge above the ground in January, but they have a lot of rather pedestrian foliage for an urban garden. This year I uprooted mine to a large tub while I decided if I could continue to grant them space. They have flowered beautifully, but it has been a swan song. This autumn I will be donating them to a friend, who is happy to add them to her more generous beds.