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Grow peonies in mild climates?

It's possible ... if you choose the right varieties

MARDE ROSS KNOWS about growing peonies in mild climates. In spite of myths that these tuberous-rooted perennials demand lots of winter chill to produce lush foliage and large blossoms, she has grown them successfully for 15 years in Palo Alto, California, where winter temperatures seldom drop below 30 |degrees~. In spring, pots of these beauties grace her patio. The key to her success? Choosing the right varieties.

When Ross's plants are in full bloom, it's easy to understand why avid mild-climate gardeners buck the odds to grow peonies. The 5- or 6-inch, often fragrant, single or double flowers are thoroughly enchanting when they appear in spring. Also, they come in a range of colors--from white, cream, and salmon to pink and red--that combine well with many plants. And the deeply cut, glossy green leaves look handsome for months, especially when planted amid other perennials and shrubs.


The most successful varieties for mild climates, according to Ross, are early blooming double-flowered peonies and any single-flowered and Japanese types (the early, mid-, and late season ones all do fine). Double varieties that bloom mid- to late season are poor candidates for mild climates: they may produce flower buds, but warm weather usually keeps them from opening properly.

And don't expect any peonies to reach their normal, cold-climate heights of up to 3 feet. In Ross's garden, the foliage grows to about 2 feet tall, with the flowers rising above the leaves.

Some of her successes include 'Charlie's White', 'Carol Charm', 'Doreen', 'Fairy's Petticoat', 'Krinkled White', 'Mons. Jules Elie', 'Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt', 'Richard Carvel', and 'Toro-No-Maki'.


Select a site in full sun (late afternoon shade is okay), with good air circulation and good drainage; in windy areas, choose a sheltered location. Prepare the soil well by mixing in organic matter to a depth of 18 inches (never use manure). Refill the hole almost to the top and tamp down well.

Peonies are sold bare-root in fall. Plant the root no more than 1 1/2 inches deep (1/2 inch deep in Southern California); do not follow the usual 2-inch recommendation for cold-winter areas. Space roots 3 to 4 feet apart. Keep soil moist; don't fertilize the first year. Apply moderate amounts of fertilizer thereafter.

Flowers appear in April. The first year you'll probably get one or two blooms. By the third year, you should get a good show. You'll probably find ants crawling on the buds of peonies, but don't try to control them; longtime peony growers say they help the flower buds open. Cut off flowers after they fade. Plants die back in fall.


The price of roots starts at $14 to $16 and can go as high as $55 for rare varieties.

A & D Peony And Perennial Farm, 6808 180th S.E., Snohomish, Wash. 98290; (206) 668-9690. Catalog $1.50 (deducted from first order).

Caprice Farm Nursery, 15425 S.W. Pleasant Hill Rd., Sherwood, Ore. 97140; (503) 625-7241. Catalog $2.

Marde Ross & Company, Box 1517, Palo Alto, Calif. 94302; (415) 328-5109. Free catalog.

Klehm Nursery, Route 5, Box 197 Penny Rd., South Barrington, Ill. 60010; (800) 553-3715. Catalog $4.
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Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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