Nothing marks the gentle return of summer like a peony. At Bear Creek Farm, we are obsessed with this extraordinary flower - and always moved to write about them. Their season is short. We, here at the farm, are so busy harvesting this glorious bounty that we too often miss the moment to share what we have learned about tending, harvesting, and extending the life of a peony.
So, we wanted to pause. We wanted to slow it down enough to share the benefit of our experience with our friends while it is actionable. (While it is still high peony season.)
For those of you growing peonies, know that we, at Bear Creek Farm, make it a point to learn by doing. This is another way of saying that we learn from our mistakes. Trial and error is at the heart of so much of what we do. We enjoy sharing the benefit of any knowledge we glean along the way. Experiments gone sideways are teachable moments, never mistakes. From the Department of True Confessions, when I began growing peonies I was told to pick a peony at “the marshmallow stage,” advice I confess to have found confusing. I understood that this analogy was intended to align with the relative “feel” of the bloom – soft, medium, or firm. Still, I found this advice difficult to apply. It did not really tell me when to harvest the bloom. In addition, I wondered why one would be advised to squeeze every bloom prior to cutting. I had questions about the risk of transferring oils (if hands are ungloved), or bacteria (if using gloves) to those gorgeous petals with every suggested squeeze.
- Pro tip: in essence, when the green sepals separate from the bloom and the flower colors up, your peony is ready to harvest - and it will open. Forget about marshmallows. Peonies have nothing whatsoever to do with marshmallows. After much experimentation and observation here at the farm, we find that peonies are part of nature - and can be treated like any other flower. They throw both colors and clues. They tell you when they are ready to be harvested with visual cues. Don’t squeeze the peonies.
- Pro Tip: Freshly cut peonies must rest. After harvest, peonies must “rest” for ½ an hour or so. (In other words, you do not want, immediately, to submerge the stems in water.) If they are put in water immediately this will cause them to “blast” open, thinking the party has begun.
- Pro tip: the question of how best to store your peonies presents. (This is perhaps more for growers than home gardeners.) We suggest initial storage of freshly harvested peonies in a cooler (34°-36°) containing enough water to provide adequate moisture. Having experimented in numerous ways, we at Bear Creek Farm prefer wet storage to dry storage. In our experience, the petal simply looks fresher as the stems and blooms rest and prepare to be displayed. For years, many have understood that it is best, initially, to store peonies dry. This has not been our experience.
There are few things more beautiful than the early summer dappled light falling upon a vase full of peonies in a kitchen; nothing sweeter than seeing peonies (just ready to harvest) bent over in rain and beaded in droplets of water. They come to stand strong once more. Peony season underscores the power of the gentle choreography and partnership between the grower and nature, and evidence of miracles.
Now that you've finished reading this article, you should check out our tulip planting primer, dahlia growing guide, and cutting guide for dahlias. And if you're shopping for dahlia tubers, make sure to check out our giant dahlia tubers (10"+ blooms), micro dahlia tubers (under 2" blooms), dark pink dahlia tubers, dark red dahlia tubers, and bicolor dahlia tubers.