peonies

Angie Lopez carries an armload of Lemon Chiffon and Hawaiian Coral peonies from the field to the processing room at Adeline’s Peonies on May 8, 2014. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic file)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- In 1939, Adeline McCarthy started selling the peonies she grew in her garden on Asotin Avenue in Toppenish. Out of work men, riding the rails in the desperate days of the Great Depression, jumped from trains that passed nearby, and walked to her door. In exchange for helping Adeline with hoeing and weeding, this remarkable woman would make them a hot meal. In those early days, Adeline’s most loyal customers were Yakamas, who lovingly decorated the graves of their ancestors with flowers every Memorial Day.

Adeline’s son Roger kept the business going, and today, his son Pat still sells peonies from the Asotin Avenue garden he worked in as a boy.

The best news is that Pat’s son Jay has returned to the Yakima Valley, carrying the family’s legacy to the fourth generation. Jay planted 10,000 new early, mid and late varieties in a field of his own in Sunnyside this spring.

Pat absolutely beams when he says “that working with his son is the greatest pleasure he has.”

While most of the flowers they grow are for the cut flower trade, Yakamas still buy thousands of blooms on the last Monday in May.

And while many of her plants have been replaced by exciting new varieties in shades of coral and yellow that she never imagined,
Pat and Jay are still harvesting from rows of lush, productive bushes that Adeline planted over 80 years ago.

Imagine hundreds and hundreds of plants, many producing nearly 50 blooms, and not a single stake or peony ring in sight. At Adeline’s, side buds are removed soon after they form, allowing only a single blossom per sturdy stem. As soon as the jumbo marshmallow-size buds begin to show a hint of color, they’re cut, packed in boxes, and rushed to a cooler held at 34 degrees. At this temperature, they can keep for up to six weeks, allowing plenty of time for shipping to Seattle florists. When placed in water and brought to room temperature, the buds unfurl over a week’s time, yielding a bouquet with amazing staying power.

When my garden club and I visited Adeline’s, it was clear that there is nothing short of magic in Adeline’s garden.

Clearly in love with his work and eager to share what he’s learned, here are some of Pat McCarthy’s gems about growing peonies, a plant he considers “tougher than nails.”

• One reason why peonies may not bloom is if they’re planted too deep. The crown of the plant and the eyes should be no more than 2 inches below the soil surface.

• Overfeeding peonies can result in bountiful foliage and no blooms.

Each spring, feed them a handful of a balanced fertilizer not too high in nitrogen. If your soil is good, just a side-dressing each year with compost will do.

• Peonies prefer full sun all day long.

Good air circulation can prevent fungal diseases, so plant dwarf varieties 2 feet apart and standards at least 3 feet apart.

• While it is true that ants are commonly seen on peony buds, it’s not true that they’re there to help the flower buds open.

Peonies have glands called extrafloral nectaries on their sepals and floral bracts that release nectar. These are different than
the nectaries that are
inside of the flower that produce nectar to encourage pollination and provide food for hummingbirds and insects.

It’s thought the peony’s extrafloral nectaries attract beneficial insects, such as lady bugs and ants, which will protect the plant from insect pests.

• Cutting blooming stems with too much foliage can reduce or eliminate peony blooms next year, since the foliage nourishes the roots when allowed to ripen on the plant.

Leave at least one-third of the foliage, and cultivate healthy foliage all season long. Cut plants to the ground after a hard frost.

• Pat has no patience for “sulking” peonies.

His solution is to dig unproductive plants in the fall and chop the roots into smaller pieces, discarding the oldest sections and replanting newer portions with at least three growing eyes.

The smaller the pieces, the longer it will take the divisions to bloom.

• Always clean up around peonies in the fall and destroy (do not compost) all plant remains to minimize the spread of fungal diseases.

Stems of all varieties sell for just a dollar. If you phone or email your order, Adeline’s will have your peonies ready to pick up. Its cold room can keep your order in bud stage or it can provide fully opened, fresh cut stems (or any bud stage in between).

Contact Adeline’s Peonies, 502 Asotin Ave., Toppenish, WA 98948 at 509-945-5790 or jayp
mccarthy@gmail.com

Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Contact her at florabundance14@gmail.com.