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Preparing for Peonies and Planting

Updated: May 24, 2023


a field of newly planted peonies growing through landscape fabric

Preparing the Soil


In September 2022, we acquired a two-acre plot of rough land which was covered in scrubby, pioneer vegetation but had promising, alluvial soil and was close to home. It was a plot that required a lot of work before we could even think about planting.


In October, we (largely Pa, with me having tractor lessons) began tackling the tamer of the two halves and, armed with flail mower and chainsaw, got started on smashing back the tangle of bramble, dog rose and saplings. Pa became especially adept with the flail mower, performing all manner of manoeuvres to flatten the thicker, woodier dog roses.


Once the first half was mown, we swapped the flail mower for a plough and began slicing into the earth, inverting and burying the turf, to reveal the rich, silty soil beneath. The weather was wet in early November, resulting in difficulties with spinning tires which struggled to grip onto the soil in places, especially when the plough met with substantial bramble roots.


The plough was then replaced by the rotavator which transformed the thick clods into a fine and pleasing tilth. It was very satisfying work, especially considering how overgrown the plot had been just weeks before!







Planting


In late November, the field was ready for planting and we began marking out the beds and laying out the landscaping fabric. After much deliberation, and with the environment very much at the forefront of our minds, we concluded that it was necessary to plant through landscaping fabric for the first few years. The soil had been uncultivated for years and had built up a big bank of weed seeds and roots; if we wanted to be able to successfully grow thousands of peonies and undertake all of the physical labour ourselves (planting, weeding, feeding, cutting) alongside our pre-existing jobs, then using fabric to suppress the weeds for the first few years was essential. We hope that within a few years, when we are working full time on the business and weed numbers have reduced, we can spend more time on hoeing and won't have need to replace the fabric.


Pa measured out the beds (which we made 40m long, 1m wide, with a 50cm path), raked them, removed roots and pinned down the fabric. We used hundreds of metal pegs to fix the fabric down but were concerned (and still are) about entire lengths disappearing should there be strong winds so we weighted it down with large stones and rocks as well.


I followed behind with the nice, cushy job (and slightly warmer job in the freezing weather) using a blowtorch to burn holes into the fabric. We used blowtorches because it was more time efficient than a knife and prevented the fabric from fraying once cut. After making some initial abstract, free-hand blobs, I went and bought a cake tin, removed the bottom and used it to burn out perfectly clean circles.


Planting the tubers through the fabric was quite awkward work but we quickly fell into a rhythm, usually planting a full bed of about 140 peonies in a 3 hour planting session. We planted two rows in a bed with 60cm spacing between plants which will hopefully allow enough ventilation to avoid mildew and be close enough for the plants to support themselves.


In November and December, the weather was drizzly and damp which made the work messy and hard-going initially. Other days were bitterly cold and foggy, the ground frozen solid and so planting was paused until it warmed up a little. Over Christmas and the new year, we enjoyed some milder days with bright blue skies and were able to make a lot of progress, and by January, we were in a race against the peonies themselves which were rapidly sprouting and beginning to go mouldy in their crates. By the start of March, we had planted 16 beds and over 2000 peonies: a mix of the creamy Duchesse de Nemours, pale pink Sarah Bernhardt and pinky-red Command Performance.






Sourcing Peonies


In late October, we were given permission to salvage peony tubers from a field which had been left to waste in Lincolnshire. It was a bit of a treasure hunt because very little foliage remained and the beds were not marked so finding them involved digging in random spots and guessing the spacing between them. Having been submerged 15cm deep in compost, the tubers appeared to be stressed and had produced a high number of tiny shoots. After several hours of rooting around in the soil on a warm afternoon, we came away with 200 large tubers, ready for division, and 200 smaller ones.




To top up numbers, Pa ordered an additional couple of thousand cuttings from Green Garden Flower Bulbs in the Netherlands which arrived in black crates a few weeks later.


Generally, the peonies we planted were either smaller or in poor condition, and most had to sit in crates for slightly too long before we could get around to planting them. This year, we will dead head them to encourage healthier growth of the tubers and in 2024 we hope to cut our first, very small crop. It will be several years before the plants are in full production.






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