Garden View: Peonies, The Party Girls of Springtime
Liza Gyllenhaal is the author of the novels “Local Knowledge,” “So Near,” and the forthcoming “A Place for Us,” all set in the Rural Intelligence region. She and her husband divide their time between Manhattan and West Stockbridge, MA where she writes — and putters around in her garden. We’re pleased to share her periodic musings on gardening and other topics with RI readers.
It was over almost before it began. My herbaceous peonies (as opposed to the tree variety) were dressed in their loveliest pale pink flouncy tutus late last Friday afternoon. They swayed together, graceful as ballerinas, in the light breeze as if hearing the first faint notes of an invisible orchestra. I’d been waiting for weeks to see them in this state of perfection: so fresh-faced and expectant, fragrant with youth and promise!
Peonies are among the first of the perennials to rouse themselves at winter’s end, wiggling their dark purple fingers up through the thawing earth along with the early daffodils. By mid-April they could pass for not particularly promising asparagus spears. In fact, there’s nothing much about this early rubbery stalk stage of their growth that indicates the prodigious beauty that is to come. But then, in a burst of activity that seems to take place overnight, they fill out into glossy green hoop-skirt-shaped masses dotted all over with jaw-breaker-sized buds. Ants are often attracted to the nectar these buds give off and apparently actually help in opening the dense double flowers found in many varieties.
My oldest peony bush came with the house and was, I believe, planted in the late 1940s. Herbaceous peony bushes can last for decades. I’ve seen some blooming in the middle of fallow fields near, no doubt, to where a house once stood. When properly cared for (a little fertilizer, the occasional division) they’ll bloom like clockwork year after year. As the Rural Intelligence region is made up of so many microclimates, the same cultivated hybrid that blossomed two weeks ago in Sheffield is just now coming into its glory in West Stockbridge.
Sadly, that glory is fleeting. The flowering life of the herbaceous peony is generally all of one week — and aptly described in this poem by the famous local party girl Edna St. Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives a lovely light.” A friend from Tyringham says: “I tend to think of them as the dumb blondes of the garden, because if they grow for even me (and they do) they are a no-brainer for sure. Plus they are so top heavy, like they’ve had implants, that they topple over without support!”
Maria Nation, whose magnificent Good Dogs Farm in Ashley Falls has some of the most beautiful peonies in the RI region, sums up the problem: “After a rain they look like wet debutantes laying on the ground in their wet ball gowns.”
Which leads me back to last Friday night. Remember how it rained? And then rained some more? Wind rattled the window frames. Thunder rumbled through. And in the morning my peonies that just the day before had been the belles of the ball lay spent and bedraggled — like Maria’s hard-partying debutantes — in postures of abandon all around the garden.
However, even with the blooms cut back, mature peony bushes make a respectable addition to the summer garden. They tend to hold their rounded shapes and the green, distinctively cut leaves retain a glossy luster. But they’re more chaperone than companion for the younger, exuberant geraniums and poppies that are taking to the dance floor. Early passions banked, by mid-June there’s little about the peonies’ matronly, benign demeanors that would make you suspect what wild nights they had once known.
Early June in the garden:
It’s a slug-fest! The damp weather and continuously moist soil have produced a bumper crop of these disgusting pests. It didn’t really surprise me to learn that slugs are hermaphrodites, equipped with both male and female reproductive systems so they can actually mate with themselves. That’s not something you want to think about too hard as you try to pry these slimy, stinky creatures off your hosta leaves and what’s left of the echinacea.
There are endless home remedies for ridding your garden of slugs — everything from copper strips that give off jolts of electricity to sprinkling Epsom salts around the plants. Another popular solution is to sink full beer cans into the soil near infected areas; the slugs then crawl into the can and drown (which seems to me an all-too-happy way for them to meet their maker).
I go around and pick them off by hand (but wear gloves because they ooze a glue-like substance) and drown them in a bleach solution and try my best to keep the garden dead-headed and free of debris. Praying for a week or two of hot dry weather helps, too!
• Stake and fertilize your tomatoes, deadhead and fertilize the roses, plant new batches of arugula and radicchio before the heavy summer heat sets in.
• Get your tickets for the June 15th Cocktails in Great Gardens. The first of these magical evenings benefiting the Berkshire Botanical Garden will be hosted by Rachel and Adam Albright in Richmond.
• Make a list of what you want to buy when you cash in your Laurel Loot at Ward’s Nursery from June 14th —26th.
• Join me on Saturday June 16th when I take in the Hidden Gardens of Spencertown, which is bound to be one of the highlights of the 2012 summer. —Liza Gyllenhaal