Margaret Lauterbach

Margaret Lauterbach: Peonies flourish in Idaho

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

One version of perennials is that a perennial is a plant that, if it lives, is still alive three years after it was planted. Some perennials are short-lived, such as lupines. Others live very long lives with just a little care.

Peonies are one of the longest-lived perennials we’re familiar with, living up to 100 years or more. They’re tolerant of heat and cold, don’t require a lot of water and are light feeders of fertilizer. They can last all summer in our area without supplemental water. When they bloom, they perfume the air with their rich fragrance. Blossoms may be single or lush doubles. Most bloom in time to provide blossoms for cemetery arrangements for Memorial Day. Blossom colors range from dark red to dazzling white and, thanks to the Itoh varieties, rich yellow.

If you’re going to plant your first peony, know what sunny location you want the plant and will want it in the future. Then dig a very deep hole, two to three feet deep if possible. If you encounter hardpan (caliche or hard clay), try to break it up to allow good drainage. The plant will develop deep roots, thriving in the large hole of loose soil you’ve provided.

Set your plant so that the “eyes” on the root are no deeper than two inches. This is important, because if the peony eyes are set deeper than two inches, it won’t bloom. If the peony is potted, it’s probably been planted to that depth, but it may be worthwhile checking by exposing the crown with a strong jet of water.

Large lush blossoms on peonies are prone to flopping over, so need support. Some folks use those three-ring “tomato” cages, and others who have many plants just lay sections of chicken fence over the emerging leaves. As the plant grows, it raises the chicken wire, entwining stalks so that the blossoms are supported by the entire plant.

Planting early, mid-season and late varieties can extend your blooming season for eight weeks. You can also harvest blossoms with stem, hang them upside down in a dark closet to dry. Those blossoms then will last for quite a long time.

Breeders have developed a cross between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies, called Itoh peonies. Those peonies, now widely available in this country, feature large blossoms on each plant, framed by dark green disease-resistant plants. One thriving Itoh peony can produce up to 50 blossoms. They gain in strength and vigor as they age.

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Most of you know that vendors can’t (or aren’t supposed to) ship allium bulbs to this area unless they were grown in southwest Idaho, an embargo intended to protect the very large onion-growing industry in this area from a disease called white rot. The soil-borne disease, once present in a field, cannot be removed or remediated.

Another industry the state Dept. of Agriculture strives to protect is the dry bean industry. A quarantine is in place and has been since 2006 that some vendors have overlooked until now against beans that may carry any of five different diseases: anthracnose, bacterial wilt, brown spot, halo blight and common blight. This quarantine, requiring testing and phytosanitary certificates, is also intended to protect beans grown in home gardens. Some vendors don’t want to go to the expense of testing for expected sales, and find it easier to refuse to send beans to our area.

So if you already have bean seeds for this year’s garden, I’d recommend you save seeds from your own crop for next year, because other vendors may get the message and refuse to send bean seed. Our state’s population is so small that vendors can’t count on many sales.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.