When I moved to my farm in Bedford, N.Y., I vowed to rethink the way I had always gardened. I wanted to plant differently, to create masses of color and masses of a single plant type, as I never had before.
My beloved 6-acre garden at Turkey Hill, in Westport, Conn., had been planted fully and well. Influenced by Claude Monet and his colorful, lush garden in Giverny, France, and by Helena Rutherford Ely and her extraordinary garden in New Jersey, I had planted orchards, perennial borders and large flower beds.
The Bedford gardens, which I began about four years ago, gave me many more acres to deal with and a landscape that seemed to devour plants and shrubs and trees at a ferocious rate. I had to create a new type of design and method to deal with areas instead of beds, with more mass plantings than carefully planned borders, and groupings of specific colors rather than a riot of color, as at Turkey Hill.
Having read so much more by that time than when I started gardening in Westport, my tastes and sensibilities were honed by botanical knowledge. I zeroed in on individual species: azaleas, boxwood, epimediums, hostas, and even various trees, such as sycamores and ginkgos and beeches.
I began planting in masses, focusing on specific plants, not the overall garden. After one great event took place, like the blooming and fading of the azaleas, another mass of color would appear elsewhere, such as the herbaceous peony garden, leading the eye from one place to an entirely different location.
My new mentors were Jacques Wirtz, a Belgian landscape architect, and Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born, London-educated author of books such as "Elizabeth and Her German Garden" and "The Enchanted April." Both designers understood vistas, quantity and massing in a way I never had.
My peony garden has been quite successful. I decided to concentrate on pink varieties because I had read that von Arnim had a circle of pink peonies, 300 feet across, that her little girls adored.
I consulted with Roy Klehm, owner of Klehm's Song Sparrow nursery in Avalon, Wis., to narrow the vast number of varieties in his catalog. I wanted plants that had a long blooming period and strong and vibrant cultivars, and I hoped to include a range of pinks and blossom types, including single, semidouble, double and anemone.
We prepared the beds carefully, but it was not difficult to make the soil responsive to peony culture. This portion of the property had once been a peony border, and the former owner, a respected member of the Bedford garden club, had composted, manured and fed the area regularly, making sure the soil had a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. And she had ensured that the area would be sunny: The giant shady sugar maples were pruned up very high.
To delineate this garden of 11 double rows of 22 varieties of peony, I have planted a double row of round and oval boxwood around the vast beds. I expect this to grow into an undulating wall, guaranteeing that the bed will remain a focal point on the property and accentuating its importance in the landscape.So many peonies! I could not wait for them to bloom. Even that first year, the bounty was much more than I had expected. So much more that I planned a peony party for the following June to celebrate an even better year. And on that warm night, despite the competition of delicious food and lively guests, the peonies were definitely the stars of the evening.
Pointers on how to have a beautiful peony garden
A PLANTING GUIDE
Peonies are hardy and undemanding, but there are pointers to keep in mind.
• Peonies require a dormant period, so they do best in cooler areas. In warm climates, choose early blooming cultivars.
• Space plants about 3 feet to 4 feet apart and away from competing tree roots. Established plants need only regular watering and a single annual application of low-nitrogen fertilizer.
• There are a variety of herbaceous peony types, from elegant simples, with as few as five petals, to lush doubles, with hundreds of petals. The doubles are notorious for becoming top-heavy. The fewer the petals, the less rainwater the flower absorbs and the less likely it is to flop over.
CARING FOR BLOOMS
Peonies are unsurpassed as a cut flower, and their fragrance is best appreciated indoors.
• Flowers should be gathered in the early morning. Peonies are ready to be cut when buds begin to show color and soften they'll feel like firm marshmallows. Cut stems at an angle, and place in cool water. Change the water and trim the stems daily. Opening buds will last a week or more; fully unfurled blooms, a day or two.
• Contrary to myth, ants are not needed for the flowers to unfurl. Shake them from the cut blooms, or wash them off with a gentle spray of water.
WHERE TO BUY:Peonies, from Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, 800-553-3715 or www.songsparrow.com.
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