No gardener can possibly resist the magnificent Itoh peony

This variety combines stunning colors with a pleasing form that fits into any landscape design.

I first fell in love with peonies back in the early 1970s when I was stationed in Petersburg, Virginia, with the U.S. Army.

I was driving out in the country one afternoon when I came upon row after row of these incredible plants covered with pink, red or white blooms that looked like carnations on steroids. Next to this little farm was a stand filled with buckets of these flowers and a sign that read, “Fresh cut peonies, five dollars a dozen. Put your money in the Mason jar please, we operate on the honor system.”

I paid my five bucks, took my bouquet home, enjoyed it for at least a week and vowed that someday when I had my own place I would grow peonies.

It was almost 20 years later before that finally happened.

These peonies are what we call herbaceous perennials, and not only do they have spectacular blooms, but many of them are fragrant as well. They thrive in full sun and hardly ever need to be divided. When they emerge in the spring, I place a “grow through ring” over them to help support the large 4-to 6-inch flowers — an established clump can sport 20 to 30 flowers. They appreciate adequate water, so mulching in the summer helps to conserve moisture and feeding with an all-purpose organic fertilizer before and after blooming keeps them strong and healthy.

When fall comes and a hard frost hits the garden, the peonies will die back and should be cut to the ground. It is a good idea to mark where they are in your flower beds, so that when spring arrives you don’t accidentally break off the tender emerging new shoots.

In addition to herbaceous peonies, there are also tree peonies, which aren’t actually trees but are more like woody shrubs. They have flowers that can be yellow, orange, purple, red, pink and white, and they can reach 9 to 12 inches in size. The plant itself grows to a 4-foot-by-4-foot woody shrub lacking in form and hard to work into your landscape arrangement, but the incredible flowers make it all worthwhile.

Here’s the best of both worlds — Itoh peonies. These are hybrids (called intersectional) between the herbaceous and tree peonies mentioned above. The plants grow 2- to 3-feet tall with sturdy stems that do not need any staking, and the flowers are a happy average between the species, measuring in at 6 to 9 inches with a good range of colors. The plants develop a woody nature by the end of the season, but are actually herbaceous and need to be cut all the way to the ground before spring.

Itoh peonies were introduced in the late 1960s, and recent breeding work has brought us many new commercial varieties. These peonies are not cheap, but they are well worth the investment — they will last for years and you can pass divisions on to your grandkids.

Itohs are the “yin and yang” of the peony world all rolled into one plant, and with as many as 50 flowers per plant, no gardener will be able to resist these beauties. Now is the time to buy and plant them, while they are still small and easily removed from their containers. Put them in a rich soil with lots of organic fertilizer and compost, since they will be in that same spot for years to come.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

Rockin’ rhodies

Next weekend is full of free gardening fun at Sunnyside Nursery: Take a class on growing rhododendrons at 10 a.m. April 27, go to the Rhododendron Society Truss Show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27, and/or attend a class on gardening in small spaces 11 a.m. April 28 at the garden center, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. For more information or to sign up, visit www.sunnysidenursery.net.

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