Fall for Peony Growers - by Walt Krukowski of Mountain Flower Farm, VT
"Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower." - Albert Camus
As the leaves change colors, and the nighttime temperatures start to dip down, the signal has arrived for peony growers to spring into action. There are many tasks that need attention around a farm in the fall, and to assure the best yields for future peony crops it is important to allocate time to properly manage peony plantings.
The first task at hand is to cut back the peony foliage. This is accomplished by cutting the peony stems as close to the ground as possible.This process offers many benefits for both the grower and for the plants being taken care of. When peony shrubs are cut back a message is sent to the plant that winter is coming and it is time to focus all energy on root growth, and eventually as temperatures continue to drop, dormancy. As we cut back the foliage of peony plantings an ideal opportunity is presented to relatively quickly and easily remove weeds from around the crown of the peony plants. A good guideline would be to maintain an area 24” in all directions from the base of the plant free of any weeds. When all of the peony foliage and weeds have been removed, growers are left with a nice clean field that will be less prone to disease and fungus.
Another advantage of this process is the generation of material ideally suited for the compost pile. The stems of herbaceous shrubs break down well in the composting process, and they add a critical amount of air to the mix through their hollow stems. The fresh green weeds provide the spark of nitrogen needed to stoke the microbiological fires. As a precaution towards peony specific pathogens, it is best to use the compost created in other places around the farm. This compost could be incorporated into the soil for future annual flower and vegetable plantings, or used as seasonal topdressing for any other crops around the farm.
Once the peony plantings have been cut back and weeded, they are primed for an application of fertilizer. There are countless brands and formulas of fertilizer available, but not all are suited to this application. It is best to use an organic, slow release, blended fertilizer, with a relatively low N number and higher P and K numbers.With a mild fertilizer like this, it won’t be necessary to worry about the exact rate of application. A small handful sprinkled around the plant will do the trick! Be cautious to not simply dump a big handful directly on top of the center of the plant crown. Take the extra moment of effort required, and evenly spread the fertilizer around the base of the plant in all directions, so that these nutrients will be available to all of the plant’s roots.
Now that everything has been fertilized, it is time to move on to mulching. Providing a fresh application of mulch will protect roots over the winter, and in many cases will breakdown over time contributing additional nutrients. There are many types of mulch available. What is local, inexpensive, and readily available will often be the best choice. On our farm we use woodchips. In this case the ph can be an issue, especially if there is a significant amount of evergreens in the mix of chips. To counteract low ph you can lightly sprinkle granulated lime on the ground prior to spreading chips. If you have enough material the mulch should be spread to a depth of 6-8”. This thick covering will also inhibit weed growth in the spring.
The final step in giving your peony plantings the best care possible is to aerate the soil around the roots of the plant. This is a task poorly suited to mechanical cultivation, and the best results are achieved using the broadfork. The broadfork is a design commonly seen in the small and mid sized organic farms throughout Europe. The long tempered steel tines are placed vertically into the soil and pressed down deep with body weight. Once inserted to full depth, rocking your body weight back on the handles will fracture and aerate the sub soil around existing roots. The fork should be placed about 30” away from the center of plants to avoid damaging the peony crown.
With all of these steps completed you can rest assured you’ve done your best to prepare the peony crop for next season. Although collectively costly and time consuming, your efforts will pay off not only in the next harvest, but also for many years to come. This attention to detail will help to produce the highest quality blooms, and intrepid growers can leverage this top tier quality to secure consistently good prices.
Best wishes to everyone for many fruitful seasons ahead.- Walt
About the Author: Walt Krukowski started Mountain Flower Farm in 1998, and has been growing peonies on a hillside farm in Warren, VT ever since. Mountain Flower Farm specializes in shipping seasonal cut flowers and woody branches to discerning floral designers nationwide. The farm also produces peony root divisions and provides them at wholesale prices to growers throughout the USA. You can visit online:www.mountainflowerfarm.com