John Scheepers2017

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In Focus: Herbaceous Peony Festiva maxima
Herbaceous Peonies are truly one of Mother Nature's greatest gifts to the garden. While we love them all, we're convinced that Festiva maxima would show up on every horticulturist's top ten, no, make that top five, list of all-time favorites for display and cutting gardens.

Blizzard White with Graceful Raspberry Highlights
Circa 1851, Festiva maxima's firm, knobby, crimson-edged green buds open to reveal silky petals in the softest shade of whisper-pink. As the buds plump up and unfurl, this acclaimed Miellez hybrid double pales to luxurious creamy-white with intermittent raspberry-crimson flecks and striations. Ultimately, its large, thick, petticoat-flouncy flowers mature to glistening blizzard-white with occasional raspberry accents.

Floriferous with a heady fragrance for which it is prized, Festiva maxima's immense ruffled blooms are borne on strong stems. Mature plants grow up to 3' tall and 3' to 4' wide and usually bloom in May/June in horticultural zone 5. It's best to provide Festiva maxima with support for its weighty, flower-laden stems by installing Peony grow-through rings after fall-planting (it's easier than doing it in the spring after growth is initiated).

The Ant Question
Some believe that dense double Peony buds require swarms of ants prying at their hard exteriors to open. We don't think that's really the case, although it's a nice insect-plant symbiotic story. We've come to believe that some varieties of double Peonies produce tiny ant-sized portions of delicious nectar that drive ants wild with joy. Once the nectar is gobbled up and gone, the ants go away, usually once the flower is open. But that's also a kind of happy insect-plant story.

Fall-Planted Festiva maxima Rootstocks
Incredibly easy to grow, this low maintenance, prolific and deer-resistant perennial asks little to perform magnificently for decades. Hardy from horticultural zones 4 through 8, we advise planting, moving or dividing Peony rootstocks in the fall. This allows the rootstocks time to develop feeder roots, store nutrients and settle into their new homes before the mandatory long winter hibernation. Considerably more expensive, containerized plants available for spring installation can become stressed and sulk for quite a while because the rootstocks don't have time to settle in before they are expected to grow foliage and flowers.

Easy Planting Tips
Our prized Festiva maxima rootstocks have been nursery-grown through division in the Netherlands for two years. Each rootstock has varying amounts of roots, and three to five eyes (or minuscule buds) for optimum flower production the first spring. Some individual rootstocks may be trimmed of old wood to allow room for new root growth.

We receive our Herbaceous Peonies from the annual Dutch harvest in early October. Inspect the roots when you receive them. If they are really dry, you may rehydrate them in room temperature water for up to six hours, although it's not really necessary because they rehydrate once planted. Store the rootstocks in a cool, dark spot until it's time to plant them in October after the soil has cooled to about 55 degrees F, after about two weeks of sweater weather when night time temps have hovered in the 40s.

Peonies love abundant sunshine, well-draining, rich loamy soil, ample breathing room between plants and structural support for their ever-burgeoning, flower-laden stems. They prefer neutral to slightly alkaline pH soil (6.0 to 7.0) although they can handle slightly acidic soil. Prepare the planting site by cultivating 2 feet wide by 1.5 feet deep holes, 3 to 4 feet apart. Fill each hole with 1 foot of good loam. Plant each rootstock so that the crown is just 2 inches below the soil level with the eyes, or sprouts, pointing up. Do not plant them any deeper than that~it could inhibit flower production. One of the most important planting tips is to make sure that they are planted deep enough. If they are not planted to the proper depth, the plant may not flower. Double varieties may bloom as semi-doubles the first year depending on the weather, with more fully double flowers developing as the plants mature.

Carefully shovel loose soil around the rootstock. Install grow-through Peony supports. Water well. After they are planted and after the ground freezes, mulch newly planted rootstocks with sawdust, straw or evergreen boughs to help protect them from temperature spiking. Remove the mulch first thing in the spring before the new sprouts emerge. Mulching is not recommended in subsequent years.

Although they love copious spring showers, Herbaceous Peonies are extremely drought-tolerant once established, maturing into increasingly huge, more floriferous plants over time. They thrive, maintenance-free, for decades, even generations. Each fall, cut down the stalks to within two inches above the ground level and discard all felled cuttings. The cuttings are bad for composting.

Trouble Shooting Client Gardens
Rare failure to bloom is usually due to rootstock crowns planted too deeply. Failure to thrive can be caused by too much shade, poor water drainage, an overcrowded planting site or a late spring killing frost (desiccated buds). If the Peony crown was planted too deeply and needs to be repositioned the next fall, water the rootstock the day before. Dig up the rootball carefully with as little root upset as possible. Rework the soil. Replant the rootball ½ inch higher than the soil level. Water and mulch well~the crown should settle down to soil level.