THE FIRST TWO YEARS GROWING PEONIES

SOMETIMES SURPRISES ARE NO FUN

The first step of preparing your soils is done. I’ve written several blogs going into detail about this stage of peony production and what a challenge–right? Your irrigation plan is in place and you’ve selected your varieties and planted accordingly. This blog is about what happens next and what you should be doing to insure the best peony blooms and the best production for the cut flower market.

Most of the time, root suppliers are good for providing the actual variety as represented. But if you can imagine thousands and thousands of roots coming in from the fields all at one time and perhaps one falls on the floor or other mishaps in the sorting area. There is always a chance of getting a ‘rogue’ or a root here or there not true to variety. Varieties that have been around for many years in many Fields in many parts of the world with lots of different growing conditions including insects can lead to some small differences in the blooms. For instance, we have Sarah Bernhardt (bred in 1906) from more than one root grower and they have subtle differences. The latest plants have a lot of blush which is really great as blush sells for more than straight Sarah Bernhardt, but it’s hard to separate them when harvesting as they are mixed with ‘regular’ Sarah’s along the rows.

Peonies may not show their true bloom for 2-5 years. Doubles will bloom single often for the first few years and I’m sorry to say, if you have a really bad weather season, we’ve had our mature doubles come out singles in that year. So when you are doing your test blooms, you are mostly making sure it’s not a red flower when it was supposed to be white. The actual characteristic of the bloom most likely will not be discernible during this 2-year time period.

The first few years should be dedicated to ‘organizing’ your fields. Ideally the first year you will let one bloom from each plant to check for true variety. You definitely do not want all the flowers to bloom on new plants. You want the energy to go into the roots at least for the first 2 years and maybe longer depending on your soils and how your plants thrive. Harvesting immature plants will stunt the size of the flowers and number of stems per plant for many years.  If you are trying to confirm the variety is correct, as talked about above, as soon as you do confirm the variety pop off the bloom along with all the other buds in the field.

During the first two years you should perfect your irrigation systems and your fertilizing programs. Check our earlier blogs for irrigation options. Fertilizing is another step with many views and controversial ideas. At our farm we’ve tried lots of options including compost teas, peony specific fertilizers, custom fertilizer mixes from our research and more.

I’ve visited probably close to 100 farms over our 12 years and have seen many types of fertilizers being used. One farm has used Miracle Grow exclusively for 7 years and has the largest blooms and some really healthy, high volume producing Sarah’s. However, this farm has problems with Festiva Maxima blooms being distorted. There are commercial fertilizers with the same ingredients as Miracle Grow including Peter’s Professional, I used in my greenhouse successfully for 15 years. But is this the fertilizer for everyone and for every variety? Perhaps not.

I’ve seen many farms totally organic and some are doing really great and others have really small blooms. I believe each field has soil conditions, micro climates, and other characteristics particular to them. These two years are a great time for you to experiment with all the options. Keeping records is of course totally the key to figuring which way is best for you. Taking soil samples and other science is covered in our other blogs.

We fertilize in early spring and again around August 15th. We try not to fertilize after the 15th as we believe fertilizing after the 15th confuses the plants. They get the boost and think it is time to grow when they should be preparing for winter. When we were using compost tea, we fertilized every time we irrigated. We have made a decision not to compost tea based on our experiences over the past 3 years.

At the end of every season you cut the stems to the ground to about 3-6 inches. When to cut them down is the next subject. In the fall, nutrients stop being absorbed through the foliage just like trees. The tops of trees start first to change leaf color and drop their leaves. This is a good example of the nutrients no longer traveling up from the roots. There are several signs of time to cut. If we have a hard frost, if we have a week of below 40F, and if the leaves start to turn brown. The timing is not exact. Supposedly the longer you wait the better for the plant. I’ve not seen the proof of this although it makes good sense. Another factor for cutting back is the weather for working. Who wants to work in a rain storm or a snow storm? Once the fall rains start, your soils will become saturated and you definitely do not want to be in your fields walking around compacting the soils.

How to cut them is another multi-choice action. Some cut with clippers individually, others use knives and, in our fields, we use different methods but mostly we use hedge trimmers. No matter your choice of cutting the stems, they need to be removed from the fields. All foliage and loose leaves should be removed to avoid botrytis. Leaf rakes and leaf blowers are good options for cleaning up your fields. Expert growers recommend spraying the stems remaining in the fields for botrytis within 24 hours after cutting.

In Alaska botrytis is found mostly coming from last year’s stems. Other parts of the world experience botrytis in leaves and stems. Alaska can have botrytis in leaves but usually, it is from last year’s stems where they come out of the ground. Later in the season you may see botrytis more often in the foliage. Keep an eye out and spray again if necessary. When we see botrytis, we try to pull the stem all the way down to the root where it is probably starting. I rest my hand firmly on the ground to keep from pulling the entire root out and give the infected stem a good pull.

Inspecting your fields for diseases should be a maintenance task all its own. Don’t try to pull out a stem here and there when you are harvesting or other tasks. Botrytis is a very fine grey mold with spores that blow freely in the wind and can be transferred from one plant to another. A kit for the job might include clippers and a cleaning solution to use between plants. Some use alcohol but we use Lysol wipes. They are easy to keep in the baskets on our wheelers and we use them to clean our clippers and our hands regularly anyway. You need something that kills 99.9% of the disease.

A planned spraying program for botrytis is recommended and good records kept. Since botrytis is about our only disease, it is easy to learn about it and plan. Spraying is only a preventative. It does not kill existing botrytis.

If this blog has been of any value to you, I’ve love to hear about it. Sometimes writing seems a bit lonely 🙂

2 Responses

  1. Rita Jo Shoultz says:

    Good job.good content.

    • Jack de Vroomen says:

      What a fantastic blog with information from you Rita Jo!
      You started the ‘Alaska Perfect Peony’Farm learning most things yourself.
      By expertiencing all that happened growing peonies for
      cutflower production you know what works and what doesn’t.
      I have been to Rita Jo ‘s farm many times and I would like to
      recommand this blog and previous blogs from
      Rita Jo to all who would like to start or have started a peony
      cutflower farm already to learn from it.
      Jack de Vroomen
      Lisse- The Netherlands
      Gurnee Il – USA
      Niagara Falls – Canada

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