Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Peonies: Perennial and Perfect!

The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.
–Henry Mitchell, American writer (1923-93)

Peonies are one of the flowers that I think I have loved forever.  Old fashioned memories come to mind of driving around the countryside in the spring seeing yards with huge hedges or even just a single specimen.  Not many yards were without a plant as they are easy to share.  I've been adding them in nooks and crannies in my yard over the last few years.   My husband's and my second house was on a steep hill with the street below the house.  Previous owners had planted many peonies atop a low wall adjacent to the street so that passers-by could enjoy the blooms.  We built a house (on another hillside as you can't get away from those in WV) over 20 years ago and I am still adding peony plants.   I first had divisions of herbaceous peonies given to me from friends who had been given theirs by their mothers and grandmothers.  Then I saw a tree peony on a House & Garden Tour in the yard of a friend and I was hooked.  I love that tree peonies do not need to be cut back in the fall.  Their branches are very sculptural in the winter.  Now, I am trying woodland peonies; although the one I planted this year met with failure due to our late summer drought and not being able to keep watered while on vacation.

I decided I would like to try seeds.  Seems to go hand in hand with a seed propagating blog.

I ordered 3 different kinds from Cricket Hill Garden, a specialty nursery in CT.  They have a terrific site with a blog that covers every aspect of peonies along with some great videos of how to plant, take care of them and more.  Another wonderful east coast site is Peony's Envy in NJ.  Owner Kathleen Gagan recently visited Kanawha GC and gave a fantastic lecture.  I'm sure there are favorite nurseries that many of you have all over the country.

You can find much more detailed information about the types of peonies on the web sites than I can give. Since this blog is about our group's experiences in starting plants from seeds that's where I'll head.  Take time to read about all the different types and have fun choosing your plants - tough decisions ahead as there are so many colors and types to choose from. 

I purchased three types of seeds.  These had to be ordered early as they are sold out now; so plan for next year if you want to try seeds.  Hopefully I will have lots of babies to share with our members next spring. The seeds I received with the exception of the Woodland Peony are both mixes of many different species and colors.  It will be fun to what comes up!

The first is Paeonia rockii and I received 25 seeds.

Photo from Cricket Hill Garden

The second is Paeonia sufructicosa; a Japanese Tree Peony and I have 15 seeds.

Example of a Japanese Tree Peony bloom
from Cricket Hill Garden

The third variety is the Peony Heaven Woodland and I have 5 of those.

Woodland Peony from Cricket Hill Garden

I followed the indoor stratification method they recommended as I think I will have better luck.  The directions state that the 'simplest way to plant peony seeds is directly in a garden bed with rich, well drained soil.'   "Do not let the pots get dried out."  That's a huge red flag for me as we have had very little rain since early August. My grass is brown and the soil hard as a rock.   Here's a link to their seed starting post, but detailed instructions were included when I received my seeds.

My journal follows here!

October 5, 2016
Stratification according to their instruction controls the moisture and temperature.  I placed the seeds in a large ziplock baggie of damp vermiculite (you may also use coir/coconut fiber or peat).  I sealed the bag, labeled it on the outside and put in a warm place.  The suggested temperature is 80-85 and should be a warm, dark place.  The top of my extra refrigerator is not in a dark place and not warm, so for now they are going in the hall closet.   I'll leave them alone now for 4 weeks before checking for small white roots. 

Small seeds and a bag of vermiculite             
3 baggies tightly sealed, on a tray and
on the closet shelf - dark and warm
January, 2017
Happy New Year!  At last some updates to report.  I wasn't having very good luck in the hall closet, so I moved to a table in my dining room.  The dining room windows are south facing, so I kept them a foot or so away from the window but where it would be warm and brighter light.  I was able to see a few tiny threads through the plastic bag.  I checked the moisture inside and left them alone.
February 9, 2017
A snowy day and I've been thinking about my peony seeds for a while.  Two days ago it was 75 degrees and today it is 25.  Winter storm Niko missed us but it was still a cold day and a good one to stay in and tackle a project.  I looked inside the baggies and feel like my plants have enough roots to proceed to the next step.  I thought maybe due to my growing conditions I was behind, but have decided that I am not.  The instruction sheet said the time spread to reach where my seeds are was 6-12 weeks.  I am closer to 16 weeks, but I have ignored the seed bags for the last several weeks even though I have seen rootlets.  The next step now that there are tiny rootlets growing is to stratify.  Easy enough to move the baggies into the bottom drawer of an extra refrigerator.  I checked for moisture and the vermiculite was still damp; the baggies have droplets of water also on the inside.  Lots of long, skinny rootlets.  The next thing I will look for is to see when the stem shoot appears.  This will take another 10-12 weeks at 40 degrees.  Easy enough! My instructions say "Seeds that have sprouted will have a pale white rootlet and a tiny stem shoot.  I'm in for the long haul on this project.  Another 12 weeks will put my seedlings around the first part of may which is ideal weather here and close to our last frost date.  I should be on time to pot up, get them used to a sunny window and then transition outside. 
The three photos above show the tiny white rootlets, the rootlets as they appear through the wall of the baggie and the three baggies going in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator for stratification.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you can see the rootlet and the seed at the top.  The tiny stem shoot has not yet broken out of the seed which is what needs to happen during stratification. 
It's hard to get the rootlet in focus on this one, but you can get an
idea of how tiny the rootlets are.  Look in the center of the photograph and you will see a
 tiny white thread.  That's the rootlet.
As the seeds were scattered throughout the baggie, you must
be very careful when searching for the seeds as there were 25 seeds initially put in the baggie.
I see at least 10 so I will be happy with that amount.  There are probably more.

April 28, 2017
Our last frost date is usually May 10.  Not so this year.  About mid April the long-range forecast predicted warm temperatures and the forecast was accurate.  It is expected to reach 85 here today.  The coolest night time temperature was last week and dipped into the low 40s.  Today is a gardening day.  Delivering some of this year's W63s (check out that page), spotting some columbine Blue Max and working on the peonies.  I'm having limited success; but I'll take limited.  I pulled the bags from the refrigerator. 

P. rockii has lots of good looking sprouts.  I was able to plant about 10.  Instead of using a 10" pot and planting a lot, I used a smaller pot that I needed to recycle.  I put 4 plants in each.  There are still a few underdeveloped ones in the baggie.  Rather than put it back in the refrigerator I am going to let it dry out slightly in the garage where it is cool and shaded.  My other two bags are fairly disappointing.  They are very wet inside.  There are a few roots in one; the other bag seems to have less than before.  I am afraid that too much moisture may have caused them to rot.  I am not going to put the bags back in the refrigerator as they have had plenty of time to stratify.  I will open them and let them dry out slightly.  Then, I will seal again and keep in a cool but not cold place and hope for some results.  Meanwhile, below are the P. rockii starts.  The directions say to poke a deep hole in the soil and insert the entire plant, root end down.  Cover the top with 1" of soil.

The left photo shows the size in comparison with my Sharpie.
The right photo is a close up of the roots, the seed pod still attached with the stem shoot

Two pots of 4 sprouts each are on my front porch

May 13, 2017
Benign neglect! That was the phrase used by one of our members on a post the first year we started the blog.  The term is perfect for my peonies.  In the last post I told you about my disappointment with the two other types of peony seeds that I planted and that I put them aside for a while to hopefully dry out.  Today, I pulled the woodland peony seeds out to check on them.  They have been inside a slightly opened Ziploc baggie in my warm garage.  The baggie was also inside a black plastic pot and so they did not get much light.  To my delight, there are several sprouts showing!  Today wasn't the day to start potting as it has been rainy and cool and not a day for that project.  So, I placed the baggie back in the pot and will wait a while longer.  These still need to grow a little more anyway before the next step, but I am encouraged.  Not much happening in the P. sufructicosa bag.  Will keep you advised. 
At least 2 nice sprouts are visible.  There are a few more
buried in the vermiculite.

May 28, 2017   The P. rockii sprouts potted on the 13th are slow.  Just one has emerged from the pot and is very tiny.  I am keeping it on the front porch in a sheltered location and hoping for more.  I checked on the woodland peony seeds that I left in the baggie in my garage (semi light and warm) and two have emerged.  I took those out of the bag and potted together in one separte pot and added to the front porch with the two P. rockii pots. 

Woodland Peony