26: Autumn 2010

Author: Penny Johnson

Peonies on an Allotment

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Peonies on an Allotment
Penny Johnson

I’ve written before about our collection of lactiflora cultivars, planted on an allotment in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, England -but will do an update.

We started our collection in the autumn of 1989, with twelve plants from Kelways, Somerset. Pete spent a lot of time diving, so I decided to take half a plot with a chap I knew from Cub Scouts. Then he was offered the use of a neighbours’ garden for vegetable growing, so we ended up with all of a 100 foot by 20 foot plot. The soil was free-draining and fertile, but hideously overgrown and with lots of old raised beds. The profile of the plot was like foothills, and great care had to be taken not to fall down a hole.

Pete and I cleared and planted as we went, and enjoyed the gardening experience. As with all projects, you either wish for more, or wish you’d never started. We took a second allotment in August 1996, which now has the grassy car park, vegetable compound, the big shed with water butts, a grassed area with three fruit trees, and an 8 foot by 4 foot wormery. Then we were offered a further plot, from Christmas Day 2001, which made us an L-shaped holding. This became the two lavender hedges, pinks, scabious, raspberries, another wormery, two sheds with more water butts, a paved area to sit, and my garden bit, which was supposed to look pretty, but really looks a mess. This year we have begun to tackle it, to make it fit my imagination.

That leaves 99 lactiflora cultivars, and a water tower, on the original allotment. They are lovely, beautiful, amazing and downright gorgeous. We cut them all, for friends to have as bunches -an amazing few weeks of up at 6 to pick before we go to work. The flowers are left in buckets in the garage and distributed each evening… last year we counted 2623, but some blooms atrophied or failed to open properly, so the total would be a little less.

This article is about the ruthless process of refining the plants we keep. Every year we record the number of flowers and condition of the plant. It becomes obvious that some varieties flower with energy and determination, and some are declining in vigour. We have had plants which produce buds which atrophy and some which look very promising but fail to open properly. It sounds heartless, but these plants are dug up and burnt. Some people ask why we don’t give them away, but who would we offer a plant to if we did not want it ourselves? Only the very best will do.

This year we dug up three plants to move to my garden bit. They were ‘Primevere’, ‘Prairie Afire’ and ‘Doris Cooper’, all really lovely, but not able to hold their own with the others. ‘Primevere’ is a lovely creamy double, ‘Prairie Afire’ is a palest pink Japanese type with a fiery-tipped coloured centre. ‘Doris Cooper’ produces the biggest cream flowers we have ever seen -just like a competition dahlia. She has only ever had three stems and blooms -but who cares? She gives her all.

Three more we divided and re-planted the divisions -‘Gay Paree’, ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and one which may be ‘Kelway’s Queen’. ‘Gay Paree’ -wow ! think Blackpool rock -a fantastic pink guard and a creamy cushion with occasional shocking pink tufts -and 42 flowers on an eight year old plant. ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ -we had two plants, and divided one this year. The second plant was bought as ‘Laura Dessert’ -but wasn’t. Steady, reliable and generous -who can ask for more. ‘Kelway’s Queen’ -or Topsy – arrived with no label, and there were two plants in the bottom of a box of new babies -so we called them both the same. This one is cream, blush and pink… and exquisite.

The fate of five poor doers was to join the autumn bonfire -gone, and we will try to forget them -disappointment in paeony growing is an occupational hazard. How exciting to wait for a new paeony to bloom -and the joy when it is a good one, and may be better than the one we thought we had bought. Some scrawny things just resemble a small acer, and have no intention of flowering -two of them this year, but I now know that it is not always the variety at fault, but just a bad specimen of that variety.

‘Myrtle Gentry’ was such a beautiful blush flower, and we enjoyed it so much that we bought a second one. It gradually dawned on us that the number of blooms were decreasing, and then the buds atrophied -both of them were prone to this, and are now blooming wildly in paeony heaven. One zonking great Chinese thing from Kelways, who sold some a few years ago with English names, was determined to take over the whole plot, but the flowers did not open properly, so it had to go.

We bought new plants to replace the good, the bad and the ugly, and after Pete had dug halfway down to the Underworld to remove roots like giant rhubarb, we can have a period of quiet joy and expectation of silky petals, gentle perfume, glorious colours and fabulous flowers, which is the paeony season with the Johnsons.

First published in the Peony Group Newsletter, Spring 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Penny Johnson

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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