Creating a peony paradise

A central-garden peony patch steals the show every summer in this Victoria garden.

Credit: Jo Ann Richards

Paeonia ‘Kansas’ glows in the foreground, while a feast of P.’Bowl of Beauty’ glimmers in the background.

A Victoria couple cultivates an ever-growing bed of old-fashioned flowers, 
complete with grassy pathways, pergolas and a summerhouse for shady sitting

The Thompsons’ Top Planting Tip

Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

Broadcast course sand liberally onto all of your planting beds. The sand deters slugs, prevents soil from splashing up onto low-lying blooms, and—most importantly—helps to hear up the soil. “We usually have bulbs blooming before anyone else in our area” says Betty Jean. “Everything practically jumps out of the ground.”

When Betty Jean and Del Thompson bought their home in Victoria over 40 years ago, they knew they would have to roll up their sleeves and get ready for the hard work ahead.

”We needed to finish building the house first,” Del explains, “then came the so-called ‘garden’. We had to clean out tons of broom, as the backyard was overgrown with the stuff. Out front, ducks were swimming in a ditch that was topped with scrubby brush. We tackled all of that and then a year later the lot next door came up for sale, so we snapped it up and were back to clearing more broom.”

“I wanted to start gardening and was craving space,” adds Betty Jean. “We began with a small bed and grew vegetables for the family and pumpkins to sell in the fall. For the first years I didn’t do much with flowers. Then one day this lone daffodil sprouted and I loved it for its beauty and colour, so I started planting bulbs.”

Today, billowing drifts of daffodils are a visual feast in the garden from February to April.

Climatis ‘The President’ grows up one of Del’s homemade birdhouses, Mammoth sweet peas peek over the crib rails, and vigorous clumps of lady’s mantle and delphinium frame the scene.

The daffodils are followed by a parade of other traditional beauties, including peonies, bachelor buttons, delphiniums, poppies, lavender, roses, Mammoth sweet peas, wisteria and dahlias. Once the Thompsons started growing flowers they were hooked, and over time the sprawling lawn was sliced into what now serves as a myriad of pathways between the seemingly endless beds.

“We never had a landscape plan,” says Del, “just kept digging out the lawn to make way for bigger borders. And so that we could enjoy the flowers for as long as possible we kept adding more and more early to late bloomers.” 

The couple adheres to a simple yet vivid colour palette. “Springtime’s yellows melt into summer’s blues,” says Betty Jean. “The colours through fall are more varied because of the dahlias,” but all seasons are equal in beauty.

“We plant old flowers that people can relate to,” adds Del.

“And we’re always on the hunt for more flowers,” smiles Betty Jean. Often a chance encounter is the impetus for acquiring a plant she hasn’t grown before.

Above and below: Paeonia ‘Coral Charm’ is an early bloomer and vigorous spreader. Blossoms open in a glorious coral shade reminiscent of its name, then fade to an elegant cream tone.

A few years ago a neighbour invited her to dig up some bush peonies. Planting them in a small corner beside the driveway, “they slowly evolved.”

Persistence and good care paid off, and the peony patch has since been redesignated to the centre of the yard, where the plants have multiplied and now steal the show through early summer. 

To add to the collection, Betty Jean buys and plants tuberous rootstocks from mature peonies each fall. Her advice is to plant them in a wide hole about 10 cm (4 in.) deep and well sprinkled with bone meal. Planting too deeply hampers the plant’s ability to thrive and bloom, so Betty Jean likes to leave a piece of the tubers exposed a bit to the sun. She then pampers them with compost, Sea Soil, rotted chicken manure and organic fertilizer. “You have to be patient with peonies as they take about a year to settle down, and then they gradually produce more flowers each year.”

As a gorgeous backdrop to the parade of peony blooms, clematis and wisteria 
clamour over pergolas and arbours built by Del. He has since added an exquisite shade house to the scene, providing a spot to sit and savour the garden. Here the couple is well entertained by the stream of birds attracted to the many nesting boxes he has crafted. A favourite is the “fourplex” with four nesting partitions. Del keeps the entrance openings to 32 mm (1¼ in.), welcoming to sparrows and house finches, yet small enough to protect these tiny birds from starlings and crows.

Over time, the Thompsons have sliced away at their lawn to allow for three huge beds of peonies where more than 60 varieties grow and spread.

Eager to share the results of their labours, the couple regularly invites schoolchildren and horticultural groups to visit. They also host an “open garden” every spring. “There is no cost and everyone is welcome,” smiles Betty Jean, who traditionally whips up a large batch of homemade cookies for the event. This year’s open house was on the Mother’s Day weekend, May 8 and 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (at 3840 Gordon Head Road, Victoria, 250-477-3790). In November, the garden opens to the public again for a Christmas craft fair, this year on November 13 and 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Among the wares on display are intricate hand-sculpted soaps created by daughter Laura. 

Asked whether or not the garden is finally complete or if there are future additions planned, Betty Jean and Del laugh and confess they have been contemplating a luxury: “We’re thinking of adding an outdoor shower,” says Betty Jean. “That will make it much quicker for us to clean up after a hard day’s work and then head straight to the shade shack for a nice glass of wine.”

Peony Pointers

  • Plant peonies away from trees and shrubs – they do not like to be crowded or overshadowed.

  • Place them where they will receive at least five hours of full sun a day – peonies that do not get enough sunlight may not flower.

  • Plant tuberous rootstocks in mid October and November. Container-grown plants can be planted from early spring to fall – pay attention to watering during warm weather.

  • Any good garden soil is fine, but do not plant too deeply. At most, the “eyes” must not be more than 2.5 cm (1 in.) below the surface. “Sometimes I plant the rhizomes almost on top of the ground – it helps them to bloom,” says Betty Jean, although she cautions against this in colder zones.

  • Add bone meal when planting, and improve the soil by mixing in Sea Soil and rotted chicken manure or compost. 

  • Place a ring of Sea Soil around each plant and fertilize with liquid seaweed every spring. 

  • Water in the morning and not in the heat of the day, and ensure plants do not dry out during the growing season.

  • Large blooms require support or staking.

  • In late fall, when the flower tops have turned brown, cut them off at ground level and destroy. (As peonies are susceptible to a variety of fungal diseases including botrytis, fungal spores may linger on the foliage and may not be killed during the composting process.)

  • If you see signs of fungal infection – often revealed as a fuzzy grey coating on buds – prune below all the affected areas and destroy the foliage. Take care to avoid spreading the disease – disinfect your pruners and avoid handling healthy stems.

  • Sprays or pesticides are not required – the Thompsons never use them.

  • Peonies do not like to be transplanted so it’s best not to move them.

  • Be patient – newly planted peonies usually require two years to bloom. Keep in mind that they are worth the wait!