Louisiana’s Best: Peonies

Charles Rascoe grew these gorgeous peonies in his Shreveport garden. Photo by Kathie Rowell

Don’t tell Charles Rascoe peonies won’t grow in North Louisiana.

He’s been tending to the gorgeous flowers since he was a child helping his mother in her Coushatta garden.

As an adult, he’s filled his own yard with them and learned through trial and error which ones can handle our climate, which ones can’t and how they need to be treated to bless him with huge frilly flowers for a couple of weeks in spring.

Most peonies don’t thrive here because  it doesn’t get cold enough for long enough. Like peaches, they need a certain number of chill hours to bloom properly.

“There are about five that will perform regardless of how much cold we have,” Charles said.” I’ve got it down to a fine art.”

And, lucky for us, he’s willing to share, so we don’t have to do our own trials.

The five are:

  • Felix Supreme. Photo by Kathie Rowell

    Moonstone: the quintessential peony, a blush-pink powder puff.

  • Felix Supreme: a delicious raspberry fluff ball. “It’s pretty indestructible,” Charles said.
  • Festiva Supreme: white with flecks of red, similar to Festiva Maxima, which is often recommended for the South, but taller and better, according to Charles.
  • Belleville: bright purple-pink, with more of an anemone-type flower. “It’s really good.”
  • Minnie Shaylor:  “It’s a semi-double white that’s really good.”

“I would go with those five over anything,” he said.

Now that you know what to plant, you need to know how to plant them — and it’s different in the South than in colder climates.

“One of the secrets is not to plant too deep. If you’re shallow, they’ll get exposed to more cold,” Charles explained.  “Plant them with the crown under the surface with the top eyes barely showing above ground.”

OK, so where’s the crown and what are eyes? The crown is where the stem and roots join. Peony eyes are similar to those on potatoes. That’s where the stems will sprout.

With most perennials, it’s recommended to plant them with the crown at soil level. In colder climes, peonies are planted with the crowns and eyes a few inches underground to protect them from winter’s deep freeze.  Bad move in the South. Since peonies don’t bat any of their eyes at temperatures well below zero, there’s no chance our winters will faze them.

Charles says peonies prefer heavy soil, so if yours is sandy, dig in lots of aged compost — avoid fresh compost or manure because it will burn the roots. Plant them in a bed so they won’t have to compete with grass, and keep the weeds away.

Charles recommends adding bone meal to the soil in the planting hole, placing the peony roots and then watering well before covering the roots with soil. That way you can see if the roots sink and adjust them to the proper depth.

As for sun exposure, either full sun or morning sun will work. Charles prefers morning sun and afternoon shade because it helps the blooms last longer.

“When they are blooming here in April, it can hit 85 and they don’t like 85 degrees of sun in the afternoon.”

Don’t be surprised if the plants wither and go dormant in July or August. You haven’t done anything wrong; it’s a survival technique.  “If it’s too hot, the plant has to go dormant to keep itself alive,” Charles said.

For ongoing maintenance, Charles says it’s better to underfertilize than overfertilize.  “Some people use slow-release fertilizer when they are coming out of dormancy, but don’t put it on the crown. Put it six inches away from crown and wait till the second or third year.”

About waiting  …

When your peony opens its first blooms, you’re going to be so thrilled and proud a pair of scissors will leap into your hands so you can cut them to show  off at work or admire on your dining room table.

Don’t. Do. It.

For the first few years after planting, the plant needs to keep all its stems and foliage to grow strong.

“The first year, admire the flower on it,” Charles said. “After the flower fades, cut the flower off the stem, but not the whole stem,  to keep it from trying to set seed, which takes energy away from plant.  Wait till at least the third year to cut blooms — maybe float it in a shallow bowl, but you don’t want to cut any of the stem or foliage.”

So why go to so much trouble to grow peonies?

“Because they’re worth it. They’re worth the pain. That’s gardening.”

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