Peonies and Iris

b pink peonyI love peonies for their wanton blowsiness. They swoop, they dangle, they lean out crazily into their neighbors like uninvited gossips. They burst out in bright colors but change into pastels when your back is turned. They are named for Paean, physician to the Greek gods, and for a song of praise.

b white peonyThis season marks the 100th anniversary of the Peony Garden at the UM Arboretum in Ann Arbor. It marks the 10thanniversary of my personal peony gardening. These are some of mine. I don’t have close to 10 percent of what they do so I guess I’ve fallen behind, but it’s not the fault of the peonies. When Doug and I moved into this house there were three peony bushes struggling in a spot that had clearly grown more shady over the years. Come fall, I carefully dug them out and moved them to a sunnier location. I thought I’d moved them all, so next spring I was surprised to find I had peony bushes in both places. The peonies are definitely going for divide and conquer. The hitch is, they depend on me to clear out more lawn for them. This summer I plan to smother another swath of grass with cardboard, newsprint, and cedar mulch, and come fall divided peonies will take it over.

b paler irisIn keeping with the theme of Greek gods, though totally by accident, my peonies keep company with iris, a flower named for the rainbow and the gods’ messenger. Iris does come in many colors, often two or three on a single flower, but a bearded iris looks more like a supplicant than a messenger – those uplifted hands. Yes, there are three of them, but still.

b irisSiberian iris grow in clumps, so you get a big, dramatic display right away. A perennial, like peonies, they can be divided every few years to yield more and more gorgeous blue waves. But last time I did it, I noticed it was not easy to dig up the clump. Strange, that didn’t used to be true. Something tells me it’s on its way to be truer and truer every year. Peonies and bearded iris are shallow rooted and easy to dig, but I believe next time the Siberian iris need dividing, I will be calling on the Rent-a-Rowers.

b groundcoverMeanwhile, I do have one place where the perennials cooperate without my intervention. Creeping plumbago (ceratostigma plumbaginoides) gets started late in the spring, which annoys people looking for green where the brown was, but makes a perfect groundcover for faded daffodils: the plumbago only leafs out when the daffs are gone and their leaves start to flop and look bad. Creeping plumbago then clambers in and climbs over them, tidying up the garden all on its own. Later in the summer it has lovely blue flowers, and in the fall its leaves turn bright red. Then it dies down and gets politely out of the way, so the daffodils can burst into full glory come spring, and the cycle repeats. A very cooperative plant.

b garden chairsThe creeping plumbago was so busy taking care of the front yard, I was able to do some weeding in the back. Then I set out my chairs among the aggressive ferns and volunteer Dame’s Rocket, for both of which I am grateful, and sat, contemplating the view: flowers; weeds; birdsong; the world.


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