Tuesday, February 25, 2020

(Not) Killing Peonies!

A few weeks ago, on a partially random internet purchasing foray, I came across How Not to Kill a Peony; An Owners Manual, a 2018-dated paperback by a fellow Hoosier, Stephanie Weber.  Consistent with the wonders of modern shopping, a simple "add-to-cart" click made sure that I wouldn't forget it, and I included the book in a recent order of other items.

I've read several garden-oriented books this winter, but none better than this one.  Ms. Weber wrote a simple and entertaining narrative of her experiences growing and selling peony divisions in Indiana, the rural Indiana of my boyhood home, and she is true to the frank and plain spoken nature I expect of Hoosiers.  Early in the text, she detailed the important factors she used to choose among varieties of peonies for growth and sale, and then related how she and her husband planted 1200 peonies of roughly 40 different varieties in 2006 on a half-acre of good Indiana farmland  to create a "drop-in" peony nursery.   TWELVE HUNDRED PEONIES!  Now that, my friends, is taking a leap of faith reminiscent of Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade!  Well, except for the Indiana placement of the nursery, because I'm well familiar with the productivity of northern Indiana soils.  Borne in them, you might say.

'Red Charm'
How No to Kill a Peony is a delicious, straightforward, and sometimes snarky 98 page read that quickly brought me to understand the many useful things I never learned about peonies from Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall's massive Peonies sleeper.  Ms. Weber quickly explains why heirloom P. lactiflora peonies flop, describes the contributions to peony genetics of each of the 4 major species that led to modern peonies (including the contribution of red pigments from P. officinalis), and she sprinkles valuable information on planting, care, harvesting, and storing peonies through the book.  Every important fact about growing peonies is covered, and covered in straightforward fact.  And the most important advice?  Plant peony varieties that don't flop!  Who knew?

'Scarlett O'Hara' in 2019
 As a testament to its engaging prose, I read How Not to Kill a Peony in a single setting, learning more in an hour about how to choose between peonies than I did in my previous lifespan. As a testament to its entertaining nature, one need only skim section titles such as "How Floppers Infiltrated the Landscape,"Days in May That Cause Dismay," and "The Importance of Eye Candy."  There are hundreds of beautiful peony photographs, and lurid descriptions of popular varieties.  Popular 'Red Charm' receives a proper promotion, and 'Prairie Moon' gets her due attention. Coral-colored 'Flame' is described as "like the quiet, nerdy girl in your math class who you one day realize is gorgeous."  Red single 'Scarlett O'Hara', one of my personal favorites, is "a sleeper, like a granny car with a turbo engine."  Bicolored 'Mister Ed' "has been on acid since the 1950's."

Need I go on?  For early and experienced peonyists (a self-coined term that sounds vaguely lewd and improper but it is the best I can think of), I've never seen a better presented "How-To" that will help you grow peonies that are the envy of the neighborhood.  Now, darn it, where did I leave that Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery catalog?  I just don't have enough peonies in my front yard....

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