Buxom Beauties

What sleeps in its first year, creeps in its second and leaps to life in its third? It’s the peony—an old-fashioned flower that’s durable, spectacular and often unpredictable.

With their massive blooms and heady fragrance, peonies create quite a sensation. As full-blown and majestic as roses but without the thorns and blackspot, these old-fashioned, buxom beauties have experienced a revival because of their longevity and ease of maintenance. The “wow” factor will be palpable this spring in western Powhatan County as display beds of herbaceous peonies, planted en masse, burst into spectacular bloom.

 Mike Lockatell, horticulturist and landscape contractor, moved to the Richmond area from New Jersey in the mid-1990s to become a part of Virginia’s green industry. Lockatell put his new roots down in the fertile soil of the old Cosby Dairy Farm, just off Route 522. Heirloom peonies and reblooming irises, his late mother’s favorites, now dazzle the public as display gardens named in memory of Joyce Lockatell. In them, visitors can observe featured heritage plants.

 Lockatell’s family on his mother’s side were truck farmers based in New York, and so perennial flowers had to be tough and self-sustaining to earn their keep among the utilitarian and income-producing plants that are the natural priorities for any farm—tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, peppers, eggplants and squash. Peonies are drought-tolerant and versatile and can live for a long time, largely due to a phenol compound in their leaves that imparts a bitter taste to deer and other animals bent on nibbling them.   Lockatell points out that dormant peony roots, called “piney toes,” were treasured enough by pioneers moving west to be tucked away into a bit of precious space in covered wagons. As a result, he says, cemeteries today in Oregon and Washington are still graced by these antique East Coast cultivars.

 Lockatell, in his mid-50s, doesn’t like being called a peony “expert.” “There is no such thing as an expert,” he asserts. “Nature is ever-changing and throws curve balls. We try to respond to that.” He is, however, a celebrated enthusiast and knowledgeable educator on the subject who says the public “needs to know what these plants can do.” He adds, “You won’t get instant gratification with peonies,” but the time investment is worth the wait. “It is a three-year process. There is an old saying in the peony business: The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.”

 Once peonies get established, they are very hardy. The plants take three to four years to mature, but after that they can produce impressive blooms for up to 50 years if cared for properly. The most crucial yearly maintenance task is cutting all stems to the ground.

 Lockatell wants to teach people about the tremendous landscape value for this rounded bush that stays nicely mounded and in its place well into the summer, forming a handsome green backdrop for a show of other perennials long after the main drama in May has passed. Peony foliage remains beautiful until the first frost and offers a substantive framework to support more spindly stems in a succession of bloom—for example, Oriental and Asiatic lilies in early summer, then Surprise lilies in August (so bare-stemmed they are also called Naked Ladies). What’s more, daffodils or other spring bulbs can be planted in the foreground so that their fading foliage can be covered by the unfurling shoots of the peony.

 Most gardeners are familiar with old-fashioned doubles—great big powder puffs of petals—but these days Lockatell is excited about the singles and the Japanese varieties of peonies. There is a delicate quality in the Japanese form; they have an outer row or two of guard petals, but, says Lockatell, “the real bang is in the center, in the staminodes,” whose contrasting colors and texture provide great visual impact.

Single-flowered varieties have functional (fertile) stamens. One of his best is Seashell, which, Lockatell raves, “has a bloom like a dinner plate dahlia.” Singles do not have as large a center as the Japanese, but many of them bloom early, in spring’s cooler temperatures, so the flowers last longer, an important feature here in Virginia. Hot weather accelerates the bloom sequence, shortening the show time of bloom, so Lockatell recommends planting early and midseason varieties and avoiding the late-season ones, whose blossoms will “cook” as the weather heats up. He says that Charles Burgess is a good early bloomer that starts opening at the beginning of May. The Don Richardson is a nice midseason choice, as is the midseason Japanese variety called Tom Eckhardt, which “grows like a weed.” And then a West Elkton is great to round out the show, blooming toward the third week of May.

 “Give plenty of thought to the spot you choose to plant a peony,” advises Lockatell. The reason is that, once planted, peonies are difficult to move. It is a challenge even for professional growers to divide established peonies, because the eyes develop just above the old eyes and roots. Lockatell explains, “If I divide a five-year to six-year clump, it may take me two to three hours with screwdrivers, knives and pruners to find exactly where the roots are and to split it accordingly. It’s delicate brain surgery.”

The plants need sunshine for at least six hours a day, so site peonies with that in mind, never planting under trees. Always dig a “dollar hole,” says the grower, even for a “dime plant,” because “the roots are everything.” Holes should be 30 inches wide and 15 inches deep, dug preferably in the fall, which Lockatell believes is “far superior” to spring for planting because the plants go dormant and the development continues in the root system. Mild Virginia winters are more conducive to establishing roots than brutal Virginia summers.

While acknowledging his bias, Lockatell suggests buying bare-root stock from a reputable grower who knows the plant, rather than from a home landscape chain or mass-market firm. Reason: You will get valuable service and support. Also, be careful to plant the uppermost eye on the crown no more than 2 inches below the soil and give the bushes plenty of room to develop. After careful planting, maintenance is a breeze. Cut the herbaceous stems to the ground when the leaves turn yellow—around mid-September—and throw away the material; do not compost it so that if there is any disease on the leaves, it will be removed from the garden.

Lockatell is a seasonal vendor at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market and also touts the qualities of peonies as cut flowers. A peony bud, if refrigerated at that stage, will keep for six weeks. For decorating in the home, just one giant peony blossom floating in a bowl of water makes an elegant statement.

Whether gardeners or not, Lockatell welcomes all to his farm. A cancer survivor, he acknowledges the therapeutic benefits of being out in nature. When he moved to Virginia, he says, he felt as if he had “stepped into a time machine and gone back to my childhood,” to a picturesque land that had not succumbed to overdevelopment. He currently promotes an agri-tourism project he calls “Make It a Day in Powhatan.” Garden clubs and civic groups can tour his gardens, hear him speak, and go on to visit one of the area’s other agri-businesses, such as Shady Nook Alpacas or Chadwick and Son Orchids. RootsAndBlooms.us.

This article originally appeared in our April 2009 issue.

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