You CAN grow peonies in zone 10!
I have successfully grown peonies in hot, dry Pasadena - even the herbaceous peonies that are so popular! There are three main types of peonies, Tree peonies that grow continuously (sounds scrumptious, not sure I've ever seen one in person), herbaceous peonies that die back at the end of the season, and Itoh peonies that are a hybrid between the two. Tree peonies have a greater heat tolerance and apparently get quite large. Herbaceous peonies need something to cause dormancy so they can rest and set buds. If you don't have chill then a dry dormancy *can* initiate bud formation (though it's far less ideal than having a cold winter do it for you). Peonies generally get listed as good for up to zone 8. Pasadena is solidly in zone 10. Because we are on the weird west coast (at least according to the general horticultural wisdom) we can get away with zone 9 plants fairly easily (my hellebores area testament to that) but zone 8 is pushing it. I make sure to plant peonies where they are sheltered from afternoon sun and always aim (though space issues don't always make it possible) to put them in a spot that gets a few hours of morning sun or at least part sun. Then it's all about patience. Disbud those plants for the first 2 years. By the third year, if they are going to bloom, they ought to HOWEVER maybe not here in our hot climate.
So here I am telling you that YES YOU CAN! and your next question should be "But should I?" The answer to that is a bit more complicated. I have a deep love for peonies and a real tendency for pushing the horticultural edge. Peonies don't take up a lot of space per plant but there are things you could plant in their place that would be much more rewarding. If you want lots of flowers, plant a rose bush! They are incredibly happy in our hot and dry climate! If peonies have your heart, then listen carefully. Some put ice on their plants in the winter to mimic chill. I don't advise that. First, it's a waste of energy. Second, a plant that needs that much maintenance is very likely to fail as you will get busy and forget. Third, how much ice? How often? Without some clear guidelines it's a crap shoot (and a waste of time and energy). Don't expect miracles. This year was we had a wonderfully cool winter and a lot of rain. I have more peony blooms than I've had in years past. When it hits 80 degrees for a spell they will probably be done but I'm crossing my fingers for a couple more Itoh peonies to bloom. This is a many year investment. These plants can potentially live for longer than you (though not likely in this climate). Don't count on having blooms every year. After four or five years, once plants are well established then you'll have a better idea about how they perform. WHO HAS THE PATIENCE FOR THAT?! You have to be a real nut to do this. If you don't already know this then prepare for some serious sticker shock when you go shop for roots. New and highly desired peonies can run more than $300. Even less desirable ones are likely to be at least $20 (and those might not even be worth it to try and grow here). Peonies are EXPENSIVE. And not guaranteed to succeed. Did I mention this is a bit of a fool's errand?
Now, if you are still reading and still want to try, don't say I didn't warn you. Here are my tips for success (keep in mind that's really "success"):
Location: Choose a spot that gets zero afternoon sun and is sheltered from the extreme heat of afternoons. If you have a frost pocket in your yard (plant nasturtiums in January and see which ones die from cold - sometimes you can identify this from topography, cold air moves like honey and flows down slope at night).
Varieties: Onings has a list of "Latina" peonies that they grow in Italy in zone 9. These are mostly early blooming varieties. Choose early bloomers for best chance of success. This takes a little research.
Buy big: Get the biggest healthiest roots you can find. That means spending more money but imho wimpy roots won't make it here as our conditions are pretty extreme for peonies.
Planting: Don't bury the eyes. Many planting guides will tell you to put the eyes a few inches under the soil but that's for places that freeze hard. Our chill doesn't penetrate the soil so keep the eyes at the surface to grab any chill they can. Make sure to mulch them to protect from the summer heat.
So, if you keep all that in mind and want to give it a try please let me know how it goes! Consider it an experiment and give it five years before you decide. Then you too can join the Lunatic Gardening Fringe :)
Is it a Bug or a Feature?
As an organic grower, I make this joke all the time. Here's the answer: If you find a bug on a flower that likely means the flower isn't full of poison so it's both a bug AND a feature of organic growing. The idea that food and flowers are expected to be 100% unblemished is a relatively new notion. My grandparents didn't have any problem cutting the bruise out of an apple and eating the rest of it without complaint. My kids act like I've served dirt if I offer them fruit that isn't perfect! Since the advent of petrochemical intensive agriculture, people have gotten further and further removed from the fact that ecosystems are what grow things. In my garden there is a plethora of bugs. Many of them are pest bugs but there are untold numbers of predatory bugs (aka beneficials) bugs just waiting to snack of them. It's taken a few years to build up decent numbers of beneficials but it's what makes sense to me.
It's all about balance. As a farmer I'm also focused on raising flowers to sell so I don't just let bugs wreck havoc on my plants. I recall once seeking advice on social media about whether a caterpillar was a "squish or save" and a bunch of friends were incensed that I would propose squishing a bug. I expect that those same friends wouldn't be at all interested in purchasing flowers that were full of holes and frass (insect poop). What I was seeking was whether or not this caterpillar was the larva of a beneficial or a pest. As with most things, knowledge is power. A solid understanding of local entomology can go a long way in understanding if you are under siege from a pest and need to step in to take action or if predator prey cycles are working themselves out without needing your involvement.
Yesterday I was out fussing among the rose bushes that are full of buds at this time of year. Aphids are having a field day with all that tender new growth and I was wiping them off and squishing them. I noticed a small green caterpillar and removed and squished it (I find gloves help a lot with this). Today on social media a woman posted about little green caterpillars on her roses being the larva of hover flies that prey on aphids. She showed some photos and they looked EXACTLY like the ones I squished yesterday. In my anxiety about the bugs on my roses I had upset some of the predator prey cycles that were already working themselves out. What a great reminder to first OBSERVE and EDUCATE oneself before taking action!
Back to the original question - is it a bug or a feature? As someone who has taught environmental science for decades, I strongly believe (and I can provide a lot of references to support my position) that overuse of pesticides, along with other things, has lead to a dangerous decline in the biodiversity of local insects. I don't want to contribute to that. On the other hand, I have a flower farm and no one wants to buy bug riddled flowers. My compromise is to focus on building healthy soil so plants aren't stressed, to choose biology over technology when a pest population becomes problematic (use predatory bugs to combat the pests), and to use mechanical methods (squishing or using the hose to spray bugs off) when needed, and, only as a last resort, use the most gentle insecticide that I can (like Safer's soap spray). I believe that farming/gardening should be a life affirming activity. Part of what makes my flowers glow is that they are nourished by healthy soil as part of a healthy ecology. I won't risk that by using insecticides. Life is too precious for that!
Why are some flowers so expensive?
Growing flowers to sell is a humbling experience. I was at the Farmers Market this past weekend and their flower vendor had prices that were less than my wholesale prices. The flower quality was also markedly different from mine but there were still plenty of people buying them. If you are accustomed to buying flowers from the local grocery store or a farmers market you might not be aware that there is a higher grade of flower. With ranunculus there is a huge difference in cost and product of the different kinds of corms (the tiny octopus looking things that grow the plants). The most costly corms are cloned varieties that come with a patent fee and a price that is 4 or more times the cost of the corms you can find at Home Depot garden section or other gardening store. They have been raised until prime conditions and are guaranteed to be free of disease, grow the largest flowers you can grow, and come in forms and colors that are otherwise unavailable. I go into this more specifically in the previous post about Ranunculus.
The same scenario applies with other kinds of plants though maybe not so dramatically. Tulips bulbs have a wholesale cost and a retail cost. Wholesale is always going to be less than retail but if you are a small scale grower you might not buy sufficient quantity to get the wholesale prices. You need to grow at least 100 of a specific variety to purchase wholesale (and have a business license). If you grow at a large scale, you get bulbs (and soil, and water and everything else) at a much better rate. Small scale growing is in a weird spot between wholesale and retail. Many of my bulbs or plugs I purchase through wholesale distributors but most of my supplies (soil, water, and everything else) I buy at retail prices. This automatically means I need to charge more to cover my expenses. One of the benefits of growing at a small scale is the time I can spend with the plants. I can identify pest problems when hand picking still works reasonably well. I have a relationship with each of my plants. My hands touched every one of them, either from the time they were seeds or plugs to transplant out in the beds. I take my time with my plants. Part of what you are paying for when you buy flowers from me is that I'm slow :) That's not entirely a joke. I tend my soil and my plants with great care. I'm not doing this from an efficiency standpoint. I'm doing this to create a flower inspired ecology of beneficial insects and lizards and birds, soil microbiota, and plants. It's a different measure. It might be possible to do everything with the least amount of time and the least amount of money as possible but that isn't what makes the petals on my tulips glow or gets a highly curated collection of unique flowers together. The price of my flowers might be higher but the cost (to ecosystems, employee well being, soil health, etc) of those less expensive stems is much greater.
The difference that fresh makes
It's probably not a huge surprise that I am enamored of flowers. I'd be lying if I said that I love all flowers equally. I'm not trying to knock anyone's appreciation of flowers and it bears saying that nothing beats flowers that you harvest from your own garden or that come from a local flower farmer. Most flowers that are available for purchase (to consumers or florists) have been harvested at the best stage for longevity in shipping and transport. This is a careful science and often involves some fairly advanced chemistry. A huge number of these flowers are grown in countries where labor costs are extremely low (a real mixed bag for the foreign employees - nice to have a job but not so nice that so much of the profit from the industry goes to others) and environmental safety standards are also extremely low. They can use chemicals on the flowers they wouldn't be able to use here. Sometimes these flowers are given an extra fumigation to prevent insects from hitching a free ride along with the stems. The entire picture is kind of impressive from an efficiency and operational standpoint!
It's not what I'm looking for in a flower at all. When I grow flowers I take great care with each seedling or bulb. I don't harvest flowers at the first opportunity because I enjoy how the flower matures. When I cut flowers to arrange for myself, I like flowers at their most full expression. When harvested early, they never achieve this size or openness. Something that I've observed over the years is that many of the flowers I grow actually sparkle in the sun. A florist friend told me this is a result of the petals being fully hydrated. Flowers are meant to shimmer! I've never seen this on a flower at a store. There is a range of color that petals can't approach when they've been harvested at the first opportunity, held in cold storage for weeks (the case for tulips, narcissus, and peonies), and transported through a variety of means before being available for purchase. Sure, you can recut the stems and help freshen them up but it doesn't rejuvenate them to the same point a freshly cut mature bloom gets. The picture above isn't the best from a photography perspective but it shows the sparkle of the tulip petals that I'm talking about. No filter! The glow of the petals is honestly how they look.
As I've grown in my flower farming, I've also grown to appreciate the entire life cycle of the flowers. I'm not yet to the stage where I harvest seeds (except accidentally in the case of things like Orlaya, celosia, cerinthe, and a few other self sowing wonders) but I have no doubt I'd be doing that if I had more space. My favorite way to enjoy flowers these days is in the garden. Cutting them for arrangements is a pleasure too but different than watching them interact with the wind and the bees and the sunlight. That's part of why I am a very vocal advocate of growing your own. Not everyone can do that, and I believe it's better to have any flowers than none at all. If you are able to grow your own Just Do It! If you aren't, the next best thing is to support your most local flower farmer. You will get the freshest blooms and they will enjoy your support.
Given that my last post was a little bit of a rant against the idea that fresh flowers ought to last forever, I thought it was appropriate to explain some strategies to get your beautiful ephemeral flowers to last as long as they can. Key ideas: water, location, and choosing the right stems.
One of the issues that consumers have with fresh flowers is that of longevity. Everyone wants their flowers to last a long time. I get it. When you spend a pretty penny on something beautiful you want it to be around for a while. Something you may not know is that there is a trade-off when you choose for longevity (sometimes several trade-offs). Most flowers are cut before they are fully mature so the buyer gets to witness the unfolding of the bloom as part of the experience (and get longer vase life in the process). If you let a flower mature in the ground or cut it only after it's fully open, it usually grows substantially larger than that same bloom cut three days prior. So one trade-off for vase life is size.
Size doesn't matter, you say? Well, another trade-off for vase-life is fragrance. At least in roses this is an issue. Modern roses (especially the "florist roses") have been bred for longer vase life at the expense of fragrance.
When I make an arrangement I try and include some big fully open WOW flowers (that will fade first) as well as a few that will slowly open in the vase. As the first flowers fade, I would hope the recipient of the flowers will pull those to let the newly unfolding flowers take center stage. The arrangements are meant to evolve and grow. It's my way of bringing the beauty and ephemerality of the growing season and the life of the flower into focus. When we tune in to the cycles of nature (which not only include, but absolutely depend on, cycles of decay) we need to make room for the whole picture. Flowers are ephemeral. That's part of their beauty. It's also part of ours. When we embrace all the cycles (and not just the young and sparkly bits) we get a more full experience of being alive.
The above photos show tulips at the stage they *should* be cut (for longevity). The right shows the same varieties fully open. I love them both!
So many Hellebores to love!
There are many different species and cultivars of hellebores. It gets really confusing trying to make sense of it all! Helleborus orientalis (which may actually all be hybrids and more accurately referred to as H. hybridus) is fairly common in local nurseries. These are the ones that the term Lenten rose describes. They traditionally had downward facing flowers. These can grow well in containers providing the soil has excellent drainage and the container provides a good amount of root space (at least 18" deep). Several of the H x hybridus lines have outward facing flowers that many prefer. Plants from the Helleborus Gold Collection (HGC) Ice N' Roses series (coming in white, pinks, picotee and a variety of shades of deep red) have been bred for outward facing flowers. This is a series bred in Germany by Josef Heuger. The Frostkiss series also have outward facing flowers and many have beautiful variegated leaves. They have girl names: Frostkiss Penny's Pink, Frostkiss Anna's Red, Glenda's Gloss, Pippa's Purple, etc.
If outward facing flowers aren't a priority for you (I LOVE the beautiful colors of the back petals on the nodding heads of hellebores), the winter jewels series bred by the NorthWest Garden Nursery in Portland have a huge variety of colors.
Another lovely series of hellebore that doesn't have outward facing flowers are the Honeymoon and Wedding Party series from a hybridizer at Walter's Gardens. The Honeymoon series has a single row of petals and the wedding party series are doubles. I've found that the singles do better in my warm climate garden.
One down side to some of the hybrid plants is that they are sterile so you won't get little hellebore seedlings growing around them.
I've had good luck growing 'Ivory Prince" which has creamy flowers that age to chartreuse with pink streaks (stunning!) which has different parentage, it's Helleborus x nigersmithii (which I believe suggests H. orientalis/hybridus and nigersmithii as parents. It is sterile.
Helleborus argutifolius is the Corsican hellebore. I was excited to try this Mediterranean species, hoping it would do well in our mediterranean climate. Happily, it does! This hellebore is quite different in appearance from the previously mentioned varieties. It has a tall stem with cauline leaves (emerging from a tall stem) where most hellebores have basal leaves that all come out from one growing point just above the ground. These have soft green flowers. Much more subtle than many of the hellebores but beautiful in their own right.
This is only a few of the species available. If you live in a cooler climate and would like to know more, I HIGHLY recommend Pine Knot Nursery site for plants, information and for resources.
Digging Dog Nursery and Bluestone Perennials are great sources for plants.
Hell to the YES for Hellebores :)
To say that I LOVE Hellebores would be an understatement. These flowers are stunners. To be honest, I think part of my reason for loving them so much is that I was told I couldn't grow them. I love those sorts of challenges :) Because I'm so crazy for them I have tried them in many different places in my yard. I was surprised that they seemed to prefer a lot more sun than I would have guessed from the research I'd done. In my yard their sweet spot is in the shade of rose bushes or other East facing beds that have sun in the morning and afternoon shade. These guys take either patience of money (and honestly a bit of both). If you can swing it, buy the biggest plants you can find. (If that's not a problem for you, you should hire me to consult for your flower garden!😉) Hellebores are slow growers and take a couple years of growing before they start producing an abundance of stems. They are drought tolerant but not very heat tolerant. Avoid overwatering and make sure they have shade in the summer. If you grow hellebores you may be tempted to cut the flowers for arrangements. There are lots of complicated processes I've seen for getting them to last when they are young and at their (imho) most beautiful. What I do instead is enjoy them in the garden that way and wait until they have dropped their stamens and other reproductive bits (like the flower above) and then they last for weeks. The dark colors will retain their color when they dry. Hellebores have a long history (like many in their family, the Ranunculaceae) as medicine/poison so don't eat them! They are the first to blooms of the new year and they are well worth adding to your garden.
My favorite flowers?
Why does this question make the song "These are a few of my favorite things" from the Sound of Music start playing in my head? So, what ARE my favorite flowers? The truth is, my favorite is probably whatever took my breath away that day. It changes frequently, however, there are some that I look forward to growing each season because they rate well in the following: 1) they are beautiful 2) they are easy to grow (this may be relative) and 3) they are cut and come again, this is an important characteristic and one I will explain in more detail below. With the list below you could have almost a year of easy blooming flowers!
Narcissus is just a fancy word for what is actually a daffodil. I find it useful as it helps to distinguish these beauties from the flowers most people have seen before at the grocery store. These specialty daffodils have been bred for wild petal counts, soft pastel colors, and soft fragrance. Some of the reasons I love them? They are EASY to grow! If you have a viable bulb you WILL get a beautiful flower - even in areas with critters. Deer don't eat the stems and gophers won't eat the roots. There are two groups of narcissus that are worth understanding. Tazetta narcissus have multiple smallish flowers on a single stem. These must have evolved in warmer areas because they will naturalize in Southern California. What this means is that if you let the foliage brown before cutting it off, you will get future flowers every year. Sweet! There are some lovely flowers in this group. I like the Erlicheer variety. However, the flowers above are not tazetta group narcissus (for more information about the different types, check out this website). They are the ones that really capture my heart. Sadly, these will not come back to flower in subsequent years. They will grow leaves but won't flower again. I don't feel right composting perfectly viable bulbs so I usually offer up my spent bulbs to farming friends in cold climates. This past year I held on to some bulbs and refrigerated them with my tulips. I will report back on how they do this spring.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.