What to do when Peonies Block an Important View
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Q. We love your show, listen every Sunday at noon on WYSO and have a question for you. We have six mature peonies around my Mother's and Grandmother's headstone. They are beautiful and bloom like crazy in May, but have grown so large that they are covering up their names. My Dad wants to cut them back; I don't want to. Please advise.
----Susan in Southwestern Ohio
A. Ah yes; I know these fabulous plants well. We inherited a peony that is literally planted right next to the road and directly under our mailbox. It was there when we moved in in the mid-80's and blooms beautifully every year, despite being in a location where it shouldn't have even survived to begin with. It's in our poorest soil, gets all the road salt in winter and almost no sun in summer. It's even survived a couple of 'chip and oil' procedures on our road—plus at least one full scale resurfacing.
So they're hardy plants. (I tried to move mine once back in the 90's, but after I dug down a solid two feet and still didn't see any sign of an actual root, I shoveled the gravel and clay back on top and it bloomed great the following season.)
Now, there are plants called 'tree peonies', where a peony has been grafted onto a small tree trunk, but we're assuming that her plants are the much more common "herbaceous perennials", whose greenery dies back every winter, like mine. But that greenery is really persistent. I went outside yesterday to look at mine and the leaves were still strongly green here in PA in early September. That's a long time for a herbaceous Spring bloomer to stay green. With spring bulbs like tulips, the leaves start to turn brown a month or two after the flowers fade. And once they're no longer green, it's perfectly safe to remove those leaves.
So if these were spring bulbs, they'd only block the view for a few months. But as long as they're still green, the leaves of these peonies are still recharging the root system. The longer they get to collect solar energy the better the flowering show will be in the Spring.
That said, you could remove the green leaves now—in September. They've done all the photosynthesizing they're going to do for the season, and there's no need to actually let them turn brown. In fact, I would cut them back in September; that way, the plants would always look nice. The new shoots that appear in the Spring are really attractive (I think peonies produce the nicest new growth of any herbaceous perennial); then the flowers are big and beautiful; and then the green leaves stay nice all summer.
But they are covering up those names half of the year….
So, if the plants have to go, the time to move them would be now. September is the ideal time to transplant or divide crowded peonies. The roots are fully charged and the plants are going dormant. But I'd hate to see them go. It's unusual that live plants are even allowed in a situation like this. And most people write to us about the opposite problem; plants that were meant to mark an important passage like birth or death but failed to thrive.
So let's try and save them with a compromise that will also add to their Springtime attractiveness. Unsupported peonies can be very 'floppy' plants; the flower heads are big and heavy and have a natural tendency to hang down low. So next season, let's use plant supports and trellising systems to keep the blooms upright, and arrange it in a way that also leans the plants away from the stones as much as possible.
I emailed Susan back with that suggestion, and added that I also wondered if it might be possible to add a small additional marker at the top of the stone. One of my neighbors recently took me to visit his childhood church whose cemetery has graves going back to the 1700's; and many of them had filials and such that were added on to the tops of the actual stones. I'm sure something nice could be constructed that would match the existing stones and have the names higher up and away from the plants.
Here's Susan's reply: "Thank you for your response. Funny, my dad came up with almost the same idea after we emailed you. He decided we should leave the peonies and have footstones installed that the plants won't block. Great minds think alike! Love your show; and as long as you're on, I'll be listening. Thanks for answering!"
Thank you for a great question, Susan—and the happy ending!