First of all, there is no way I can tell you what to do to successfully grow peonies in your farm soils. I can say, this is probably the second most important part of a successful peony farm. A lot of research, grants and experimenting have taken place since I started the first peony fields in Alaska and you can take advantage of this information for your individual location. The first step is to take a soil sample. To do this you want to carry your five gallon bucket out to the field and dig up a shovel full of soil from at least 5 to 7 locations throughout your fields.
After thoroughly mixing your bucket, bag up about 2 cups and send your soil samples off to a lab. We use Brookside Laboratories Inc., 200 White Mountain Dr., P.O. Box 456, New Bremen, OH 45869. Ask them to Fax you your results. There are other labs. Be careful as some labs also sell nutrients etc. and their recommendations sometimes lean towards whatever they sell. If you are like most of us, getting the lab report back only causes angst. Take it to your area’s Cooperative Extension Service or to one of the Soil and Water offices (NRCS). These folks do know what all the numbers and formulas on the report actually mean. They will then tell you what is needed to bring your soils up to accommodate growing peonies. As with any other life decisions, make sure you check out the credentials of anyone giving you advice. Amending soil to grow wheat or hay or most other crops is entirely different from growing peony.
We recommend you use the same lab each year to continue to monitor your soils. Different labs exercise different practices and the results could be ‘mysterious’. One year we took the same bucket samples and made two sacks and sent each sample to different labs. We received some totally different results. I was told it was because they use different calibrations. I’m certainly not a scientist (I am a practicalist) but calcium is calcium isn’t it? And shouldn’t the test results from the same soils be at least similar? Every year when we test our soils, unless we’ve had a problem, and unless the results are totally, radically indicating some problems, we usually don’t get too excited. Sorry scientist and lab guys! But you have to start somewhere.
Upon their recommendations, you will proceed with amending your soils. This is the only opportunity you will have to really amend your soils. You can fertigate, top dress and other steps later but you will never again have the opportunity to introduce nutrients/ amendments to the deeper soil levels.
Once you have the recommendations from the test, you will need to make a decision how you want to amend your soils. Are you practicing organic, sustainable, standard or alternative growing? Our farm practices sustainability.
One thing we all know for sure is peonies need a pH of at least 5.5 to produce profitable crops. A pH of 7 would be perfect but in Alaska or where there were a lot of conifers (usually spruce) in the fields prior to clearing, this may be impossible to achieve. Also we know pH can only be improved in small increments at a time. Even if you put many tons of lime on your fields in one year, only so much will be used. So be sure you take that into consideration. It is a waste of money to act without knowledge. If your pH is really low, you might consider taking a couple of years to work the soils. We took three years to prepare the soils for our newest field and we were harvesting at year two.
What does working the soil mean? If you have hard pan or a solid hard layer of clay or rock or anything that would restrict drainage, you may need to take steps to cure that situation. Some folks think you shouldn’t plow/til or disturb your fields as this can kill or eliminate some beneficial organisms growing in the soils. I’m not sure how a person is supposed to distribute amendments into their soils without ‘mixing’ the soils. I’ll leave that subject to you and your advisers. I’ll just say one more time, preparing your soils is extremely important and taking the time to do this part of the equation will determine your success in growing peony.