One of the South’s top growers shares his blooming secrets.
If you’ve ever bought peonies, there’s a chance that Carl Van Staalduinen grew those stems in North Carolina. He comes from a long line of Dutch cut-flower farmers. In 1943, his grandfather Leendert Van Staalduinen settled in Pantego, North Carolina, and founded The Terra Ceia Farms. What made this destination special? Carl Van Staalduinen says, “He had to find an area where the climate and product coincided with flower-driven holidays.” Tulips bloom here right around Easter.
When Van Staalduinen took charge of what is now a 1,500-acre family farm, he realized this region was suited for more than just Easter tulips. In May, right before Mother’s Day, 150 acres of big, bright peonies bloom. Over the past few decades, he’s mastered the specific and slow art of cultivating these buds, which require long, cold winters. Now, in addition to cut flowers, The Terra Ceia Farms sells and ships whole peony plants for people to grow at home. Here, the budding genius shares a few pointers.
Know Your Zone
Van Staalduinen says that peonies typically prefer to be grown in USDA Zones 3 through 7. Earlier-blooming selections tend
to have lower chill requirements, so those are the best to try in the South.
Plant at the Right Time
Starting in autumn will give you a leg up. “We dig and ship peony plants in the fall because they’ll grow better in that first year if they have had the benefit of being in the soil during the winter,” says Van Staalduinen.
Keep Them Cozy
For the first winter, he suggests using a heavy mulch once the ground begins to freeze in areas that have a penetrating frost.
Shoot for Full Sun
Planting in partial shade could cause peonies to become leggy and require staking to support their blooms.
Van Staalduinen advises beginning with a hole 30% larger than the actual plant. Fill the hole until the “eyes” (growth buds) are about 1 inch above soil level. Cover the plant with loose soil about 2 inches above that, and water thoroughly.
Give Them Space
Allow for at least 4 feet between the plants. He compares a mature peony to a shrub, so it will need room to grow. Spacing them too densely can lead to leggy plants as well as disease.
“We always tell people to expect to wait two to three years before really starting to see good blooming,” Van Staalduinen says. Then after that, with proper management, your plant could flower for decades.
Know the features of the selection you are looking for, and buy from reputable vendors. ‘Festiva Maxima’ is so popular that similar but less reliable plants may accidentally be given that label.