The final tally is forty fat pompom heads in various shades of pink and red. ‘How many more?’ I wail across the lawn ‘don’t miss any out!’ Another fifteen tight buds on leggy, newly-transplanted stems, fifteen that will flare as double whites, lushly scented.
Roll up, roll up, it’s peony time at last, five whole months after I first spotted their crimson prongs poking out of the earth on New Year’s Eve.
The tulips have come and gone since I last checked in with you, though the remnants of Angelique still stand at the front door. The lilac has left a dreamy trace, the wisteria showed her petticoat for the first time, the poppies have made their red correction marks, and the dahlias have stirred. A sorry mishap at the end of an intensely productive Easter weekend saw me in an ankle brace and a sling, and five weeks later I’m only now able to take (rather tentative) steps on uneven ground. In that long gap, the garden has fully sprung. But two of my hellebores have died, we have an aphid invasion and I’ve spied the dreaded red lily beetle nestling in my beloved stargazers. It has not been a good start to the glorious month of May, but that’s all over now the peonies are here.
I’ve dithered about the garden all month, unable to make decisions, full of worry about getting it wrong, about messing up, feeling both under-supplied and over-supplied at once. Three new beds have turned into four, as we decided that the part of the garden we’d set aside for raised vegetable beds doesn’t get quite enough light. Instead we’ll have a semi-shade border, with hydrangea petiolaris (the climbing hydrangea), rose Souvenir du Docteur Jamain, and some woodlanders like foxgloves, but that is as far as we have got. The need to research shade-lovers has come at just the wrong time, when my mind has slipped to other kinds of research. Perhaps the bed will go unloved until winter, when I’ll have time to do my homework.
But I’ve also been in production, unexpectedly successful with my seed germination rates. I counted one hundred and forty lupins (plus the ones I gave away); sixty ammi majus; eighty cornflowers; twelve pots of sweetpeas (Wiltshire Ripple/Almost Black/ White Flight); two trays of marigolds from Higgeldy Garden; fifteen plugs of apricot sunset wallflowers; two trays of dark blue Nigella; five trays of Nigella Miss Jekyll; a tray of craspedia; five scabiosa stellata; nine gaura; approximately eighty cosmos, white and pink; five thalictrum; sixty gysophilia; a tray of aquilegia from the allotment; two trays of apple blossom snapdragons; a large tray of Sutton’s Apricot foxgloves; eleven echinops. We’ve planted almost everything and now we’re full. Absolutely and completely chock-full. I’ve reluctantly deleted everything that was lurking in my Dutch autumn-planting basket.
The Glasshouse has been cleared out and awaits disassembling in the autumn, when a new one will take its place. Doc hared off to Litchfield in a van, returning eighteen hours later exhausted and proudly in possession of someone’s unwanted conservatory. It will be water tight, heated, with properly functioning windows, and we’ll plant a peach tree inside, which is everything I could want in a Glasshouse.
Having planted the main section of the Peony Bend earlier in the spring, we thought we’d run out of time to move the remaining peonies. But it transpired (thanks, Gardener’s World) that we were bang on time, so we moved and replanted some additional herbaceous peonies interspersed with foxtail lilies, added a pink tree peony for variety and height, and found space for my birthday treat: Intersectional Itoh Peonies.
Peonies were the obsession of Chinese Empress Wu Zeitan, who Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (in Peonies The Imperial Flower, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1999) describes as a peony-fancying proto-feminist, whose appetite for the exquisite blooms was matched only by her appetites for intrigue and power. It became more-or-less compulsory to emulate her peony passion, culminating in paeoniamania, an equivalent of the more famous tulipmania that swept seventeeth-century Holland. A single root was said to have been sold for a hundred ounces of gold around the year 810, and the many-petalled (as many as a thousand) flower has been a fixture of decorative embellishments ever since. Their spicy, musky scent can be detected up to a third of a mile away.
Peonies are magic, like garden comets, signs of good fortune as long as they don’t wilt. They live bright and fast and long. Despite their reputation for being difficult, they are the most congenial of plants. They work patiently and quietly away all winter, before chasing off the melancholies of May in a riotous glamour of shocking frou-frou and musk. I think I’d like the month ahead to be more peony.
Isabella Streffen is an artist. She has illuminated Hadrian’s Wall from end to end, flown prototype drones inside the Library of Congress, camouflaged tourists in Monet’s garden, performed in cabaret en unicorne and gifted golden fairy-tale fruit to the deserving. She lectures in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. She is a keen gardener with an obsession for dahlias.