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How Does Your Garden Grow? Peony is the plant that just keeps on giving

A peony can often outlive the person that plants it. Really? The most unusual thing about peonies is their longevity. Many of these beautiful plants can easily live for 50 years or even longer. Year after year peonies will produce beautiful blooms to welcome spring.

Coming originally from China, peonies started appearing in the United States and Europe in the early 1900's. They quickly became very popular because they were long-lived, easy to grow, low maintenance and produced large, stunning fragrant flowers.

The three major types of peonies are herbaceous, tree and intersectional. Within these three types, peonies can be single, semi-double, double, bomb or Japanese depending on their petal structure.

Herbaceous peonies are the most commonly seen. This popular shrub grows 3 to 4 feet in both height and width. Its bloom period will occur in May and June. Individual bushes will flower for two weeks, but the season can be extended by having early spring, mid-spring and late spring varieties. Herbaceous peonies come in a wide variety of colors including white, salmon, peach, pink, rose, red, lavender and purple. When bloom is over, the bold, dissected leaves of the the peony will compliment your summer garden as a beautiful backdrop to newly emerging plants in the middle and front of your garden.

Tree peonies are the stately, elegant forms of the peony family. These spectacular plants range in color from snow white to deep maroon and produce outstanding blooms often 8 to 10 inches across. Skillful propagation techniques are required to produce these plants, and they also need a growth period of three years before they are ready to be sold. As you have probably already guessed, tree peonies will be more expensive. However, just one tree peony can have a huge impact in your garden. Tree peonies prefer to grow in light shade.

Intersectional hybrid peonies are a cross between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies. They exhibit tree peony type flowers with herbaceous foliage. Intersectional peonies also require special propagation and are expensive. They are available in a few colors including coral, salmon, light pink and the elusive yellow.

Now let's find out about taking care of peonies. Peonies are easy to grow but will be more successful if a few simple requirements are met. Peonies prefer full sun but will tolerate light shade. Well-drained soil and good air circulation will protect your plants from diseases.

Only light fertilization is recommended with a fertilizer containing high phosphorus and potassium levels such as 5-10-10. When fertilizing in the early spring, put fertilizer around plants but not in the crown area.

If you are planting new peonies, be sure that the root section has at least 3 to 5 good eyes or sprouts and plant those eyes no deeper than 2 inches. Both the number of eyes and the depth are extremely important to the success of the new plant.

Peonies do not like to be disturbed. However, they will need to be divided if they have become too crowded. Plant the divisions 3 inches apart and follow the planting advice previously stated. Peony dividing should occur in late August to early September to allow for fall root development and to minimize transplant shock.

Occasionally, peonies may have a disease problem when certain climate conditions exist. The most common diseases of peonies are downy mildew which presents as white, powdery patches and botrytis which turns plant tissue dark brown. These fungus diseases can overwinter on dead plant material. Good sanitation is the best way to stop these diseases from harming your plants. In the fall remove and destroy dead foliage on the plant and on the ground.

Annual plants live for one year. Perennials will generally last three to five years. Peonies will give you beautiful spring flowers and fragrance year after year. They are truly the plant that just keeps giving and giving.

• Master Gardeners are available to answer questions from 9 a.m. to noon Monday to Friday at the University of Illinois Extension DeKalb County office located in the Farm Bureau Center for Agriculture, 1350 W. Prairie Drive in Sycamore. Contact them at 815-758-8194 or Walk-ins are welcome.

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