In the Garden

Peony Madness: How to Make the Most of a Fleeting Season

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It’s a frequent gardener’s lament…”Why don’t they last longer? What can I do to enjoy every second of their brief season?” And no one loves peonies more, or misses them more, than I. They even took center stage at two of my book signing parties last summer (the Redwood Library and Athenaeum and the classic wooden yacht, Enticer.)

Tower of books at Redwood

I guess this love affair started way back. Why, I don’t know, because we certainly couldn’t grow them in southern California, where I lived (peonies grow best in cold climates with a good period of winter chilling.) But I decided that I wanted to carry one perfect white peony as a bride (not a bouquet.) The florist who did my wedding, and many of my parents’ parties, was preciously accommodating; he “created” a single peony out of rose petals, as peonies were not available anywhere in the world on April 7th, back in those days.

Fast forward a few years and here is a freshly cut collection of peonies gathered from my own garden in Newport. I’ve had this perennial favorite on my mind for many years!


Three years ago my husband and I attended a mid-May wedding in the North Carolina mountains. Every detail was the epitome of understated elegance and grace. What had the bride chosen for flowers? Peonies, in white and all shades of pink matching her sister’s chiffon bridesmaid’s dresses. I couldn’t resist slipping back into one of the old comfy inn’s back rooms which the florist had commandeered for his staging. There were buckets upon buckets overflowing with just-opening peonies, as far as the eye could see. I said,” Oh my heavens, from whom did you order all these peonies ?” His reply, “I didn’t. I have four acres of peonies on my farm.”  Be still my beating heart…


The bride, Kate (née Phillips) Clegg, being handed her luscious peony bouquet by her father, Dave.


But what really has me enthralled are the Itoh hybrids that are just now  becoming available in the commercial retail trade — even though their cultivation  first began in the 1940’s in Japan. A horticultural feat that crosses tree peonies (with their wide range of exotic colors, large size and vigorous bloom production) with the herbaceous garden peony (fragrance, an extended blooming period and deer and rabbit resistance), the Itohs have also mastered that frustrating downside of peonies…their floppy stems.

Below are three Itoh hybrids from my garden (left to right…Hillary, Bartzilla, Morning Lilac) that I highly recommend. Be prepared to be amazed and delighted once you start down this Itoh path (just for your interest, it is Bartzilla that sold for more than $1,000. per division less than 10 years ago; needless to say, I was not one of the bidders.)

Growing these new hybrids is a joy — from garden to bouquet to flower show. And sometimes you win a ribbon.


Don’t you love these names!

The Coral Charm peony is well named for its charm is more than just the distinction of being a peony; it also provides a daily color change, as illustrated in this one bed as well as  in an arrangement, that makes them especially desirable. Imagine…the just-open flower begins as a bright coral and proceeds  to shade into soft-coral to light pink-coral to buff coral to pink parchment to parchment. It’s breathtaking to see a collection of Coral Charm in a big basket, with all these shades  conveying a symphony of color.


How to “Hold Them Over”

The #1 way to make the most of this fleeting season is to “hold them over,” a gardening term meaning to put them in the refrigerator for a future date (up to 2-3 weeks.) This process is something I use to be sure I have entries for the Newport Flower Show, which usually comes at the end of June after my peonies have ceased blooming.

Here’s how:

  1. Water your peony bushes the night before to assure that they’ll be well hydrated before you cut the buds the following morning. Look for buds that are still closed, but “spongy” to the touch and showing a bit of color (if for a flower show or other special occasion, play it safe and cut more than you need.)
  2. Place the cut buds in a zip-lock plastic bag, with their stems sticking out, and close as tightly as possible. They should not be in water.
  3. Lay the plastic bag(s) on a shelf in the refrigerator; be sure that you have removed any fruit from that fridge as the gases emitted by the fruit might jeopardize the health of the peony buds.
  4. When ready to use the peonies, remove from the refrigerator, recut the  stems and put in warm water; the flowers should open in 1-2 days.


  • Peonies hate wet feet (roots standing in water) so a slope or raised bed is your best bet. And plan to amend the soil (with lime or wood ash) if it’s acidic, rather than sweet or alkaline which they prefer.
  • Peonies are fairly easy maintenance, but you’ll need a bit of patience. It will take them approximately 3 years to establish their root system (by which time you’ll have forgotten what you’d planted) and show any flowers.
  • Once you have dug up a peony, do not reset another one in the same location unless  you have first removed the old soil and replaced it with new soil.


Peony’s Envy

Cricket Hill Garden

White Flower Farm

Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm

Swenson Gardens Peony Farm

Enjoy your peonies!

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

3 thoughts on “Peony Madness: How to Make the Most of a Fleeting Season

  1. Thank you for this, Bettie. I have had 5 large plants for many years (3 white and 2 burgundy…the names left me long ago) and it drives me crazy that they don’t last longer. Thanks for your refrigeration trick! Of course, my biggest fear is a heavy rain which forces me to cut all the drooping blooms and pass them out to neighbors and friends. Brings lots of smiles, I must say!

  2. Living in the subtropics, Coral Gables, Florida, we do not have the incredibly beautiful peonies. . my favorite flower. . so. . I enjoy them at my daughter’s home when visiting in Minnesota on Lake Minnetonka where she has many varieties that perfume the air. . just splendid. Thank you so much for your blog. . .a treasure.

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