Saving really old peonies

myfrozenlittlepond(3)April 6, 2014

I have done a terrible job of maintaining some peonies that were my grandfather's. He planted them in zone 5 before I was born, then they were in my mother's garden thriving, and then I inherited them about 5 years ago. I have really failed them. I did not amend the soil, and it is clay over sand. The location I chose was a new bed, which quickly infiltrated with grass, and was initially full sun but now receives morning shade before the sun gets up high. And to add insult to injury, I live in zone 3. My best estimate is that these peonies are over 60 years old.
I realize most of my mistakes, and it is because these plants have great sentimental value that I would like to make things right for them. So, do I start over? Create a proper bed of proper soil and protect from infiltrating grass and weeds, and hope they handle yet another move? Is there any hope that I will see healthy plants once again? My memories of lush bouquets with overpowering fragrance are still vivid. Am I just dreaming? I know I can buy new ones that have stronger stems, etc, but that's not really the point. Any hope?

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Myfrozenlittlepond, peonies are pretty tough and forgiving. I assume they've been in the overgrown bed for the 5 years you've had them? If so and they're still coming up at all, they're absolutely savable! I'd probably leave them where they are through this summer, just weeding out all of the grass that's crowding them. The only thing that would make me move them this spring is if they're shaded most of the day and the area is really wet. They can tolerate some clay and some shade, don't do well at all in boggy areas. I'd prepare the new bed for them this spring in a sunny, well drained area and then transplant in the fall. Divide them if you want/need to then. If the rootball is extremely large it'll probably break when you move it, anyway. I've seen lots of advice saying to let them sit for an hour or more before replanting, I normally don't but I'm in a very arid climate, haven't had any problems.

You can certainly move them in spring if that's your preference or if it's really needed, you just are a lot less likely to get blooms out of them this season. Wait until the soil is workable and before the peonies start growing a lot. Eyes are fine, foot tall sprouts probably not! I've actually had to move 2 foot tall plants in the spring before and they survived it; wilted like crazy but came back fine the next year.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 2:22PM
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Thank you for the advice. The site is well drained and still gets at least 6 hours of sun, so I will leave them and try to make it up to them with diligent weeding. Poor things deserve better!

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 6:38PM
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Another thing to pay attention to is black walnuts. Black walnut trees leech a toxin called juglone that kills peonies. I've read differing reports of how many feet away you must plant. It's sad because I finally bought a house and can have a yard full of peonies, rhubarb and asparagus, but a 60 year old black walnut tree has ruined my plans. Best of luck! I'm sure you'll get them back and happy soon! They really are the prettiest flower on the planet!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 10:33AM
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My black walnuts are tiny still and I don't have any peonies planted near them (yet!) but when I was doing my research to make sure I didn't kill my mature pines with juglone I remembered reading that most herbaceous peonies aren't impacted by it. If it is actually deadly to peonies I won't be planting any more walnut trees!!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 5:59PM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

All I could add to LizinElisabeth's excellent advice, would be to add 2 to 4 inches of finished compost after removing the weeds. Not on top of the plants, but around them. Al

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 9:48AM
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