Roses and Tree Peonies

March has certainly blown in like a lion.  The snow is flying as I write this and it seems as though spring will never come.  There are only a few robins about when we usually have flocks of them.  And not much is daring to bloom in the garden yet.

Touring gardens on the one nice day last week, I noticed a lot of damage to rose canes.  We had days of unseasonably warm weather this winter, followed by days of frigid weather.  This up and down cycle froze the rose canes and has turned many of them black.

Climbing roses and old shrub roses with very woody stems seem to have fared better than younger shrub roses or hybrid teas whose canes are newer or more tender.  Fortunately, we mulched the roses in our gardens late last fall, mounding the mulch over the crowns of the plants, so we should have some live, short canes above the graft, under this mulch.

We won’t remove the mulch until the weather settles and the buds on rose stems start to swell in late March or early April.  Then we’ll see what’s underneath and cut back to live wood.  It’s possible we’ll all lose some roses this spring that didn’t survive the winter.

Tree Peony Tips

I don’t have any tree peonies in my garden, but I have admired them and taken care of them in other peoples’ gardens.  They are stunning shrub-like plants when mature, easily reaching four feet tall and as wide.  In May, they can be covered with large blossoms that make beautiful cut flowers.

I didn’t know this, until my friend Tom pointed it out, but named varieties of tree peonies are all grafted plants, much like hybrid tea roses.  A young scion of the named variety is grafted onto the roots of either tree peony seedlings or herbaceous peony roots.

This is significant when you’re planting new tree peonies in your garden.  If you’re planting bare root tree peonies, you must plant the graft union (the fat part where the named variety is joined to its roots) a good four to six inches below the soil surface.  That way the named tree peony can develop its own roots and ensure its chances for survival.

Planting bare root tree peonies is best done in the fall, when soil temperatures and abundant winter rain and snowfall, stimulate good root growth.

For the same reasons, transplanting tree peonies can be difficult, and according to Tom, is often unsuccessful.  It should not be attempted in the spring.  We have moved well-rooted tree peonies successfully in the fall by digging a big root ball for each plant and moving them immediately into a well prepared, organically rich new site.  We waited for the leaves to drop before we attempted moving them. We watered them in well and fall rains did the rest.

If you can find them, well-rooted, potted tree peonies can be planted in the spring.  Be prepared to pay a premium price for them.  They are, however, very long lived as well as spectacular in bloom. Be sure to site them in well-drained soil, give them four to five feet of space, and plant them where they will get morning sun and some shade during the hot part of the day.  They prefer a neutral soil between 6.5 and 7, so add lime if your soil is too acidic.  Loose, rich soil, full of organic matter, is critical for good bloom.

Tree peonies are woody and do not get cut back for the winter. Buds form in late summer for next year’s bloom. While gorgeous in bloom, tree peonies are  not particularly attractive during the winter months, so don’t site them in a visually prominent part of the garden.

You must also be a patient gardener to grow tree peonies.  Bare root plants may not bloom for several years after planting.  Potted plants may have blooms when you buy them, then plants may be stingy for a few years as they root into your soil.

Once established in the garden, they require little maintenance and have few pest problems.  Keep them watered, deadheaded and remove withered leaves in the fall.


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