Upperco gardener finds beauty, success with peonies

For Baltimore at Home

Towering trees preside over a Baltimore County hillside with hundreds of blooms that nod in the breeze.

Invisible from the road, the spring vista has a timeless look. It's been evolving over more than four decades as Carol Warner of Upperco fashioned her home gardens around what appeals to her untrained eye.

Warner never conceived of a meticulously designed garden or fretted over style. Her garden defies labeling, other than to say this: In late May and just into June, it will be show-stopping.

"I plant what I like," she says. And what she likes in the late spring are peony-laden gardens.

Warner has long been recognized within the horticultural world for her expertise in irises, gained through the American Iris Society.

But she's also known, less widely, as a peony maven, having developed a love for them in the late 1980s, more than a decade after beginning her iris work.

Her peonies display the enduring allure of flowers dating back centuries, complemented by what she's chosen to add to the garden, all framed by the greens of lawns, shrubs and woods.

While they lend a classic air, these peonies are hardly old fashioned. They are modern Itoh peonies with sturdy stems and showy blooms, many as wide as Warner's palm. They have the romantic look that peonies are known for

The peonies aren't identical. They range from pinks to pale yellows, from apricots to ivories on plants between 2 and 3 feet tall. Some have delicate single rows of petals and others show off far more.

How many peonies?

"A hundred," maybe a few more, Warner estimates, including some that flower as early as daffodils. "I just like them."

She has since planted another batch.

She created the hybrid barely pink peony named Polly Sharp and several iris hybrids, including a purple veined Siberian named Shaker's Prayer that is widely sold, though she doesn't profit from it.

Her late spring landscape has a cohesive color blend and includes traditional landscape elements.

"I don't like all colors spread all over the place," the former home economics teacher says. "When the peonies are in bloom, I like the garden to be mostly pinks."

That's why the late May setting is awash in pinks, blues, purples and whites, including her Shaker's Prayer iris and Polly Sharp peony. She favors perennials, as they return annually.

All around the house are landscaped beds, with most around the backyard. The most extensive, set back from the house and running almost its width, pops from the lush green backdrop of her roughly 10-acre property, some of which is wooded.

Visitors can see color-filled views of that bed alone from almost any part of the yard

That an ever-expanding lavender plant claims increasing space in the path is inconsequential. Self-seeding flowers don't always appear in the same spot every year, but "if I like them there, I leave them," Warner says.

False indigo, with its shrubby plants sporting blue, purple and white flowers, is among the standouts. Emerging greenery will grow into plants providing a wealth of summertime flowers. Sculptures dot garden beds.

"Sometimes I'll look out and think somebody's in the garden," Warner says of a nearly life-size concrete statue of a woman.

Other somebodies are in the garden fish-filled pond that Warner dug, and butterflies and bees that fly from bloom to bloom.

Trees anchor the landscape and provide dappled shade. One offers a burst of white in a partly shaded area at the edge of the woods, a spot Warner decided would be improved by a flowering tree framed by larger trees.

"I've never seen another kousa dogwood that blooms this many blooms," Warner said. "That I got as a seedling."

Touring during an iris convention in the Boston area 25 years ago, she plucked three from outside a Harvard University building where a big kousa she admired had sprouted offspring. They "stayed in my [hotel] sink wrapped in a paper towel until we came home," she says.

Peeking out from it is a shrub that's remained popular for generations: a hefty rhododendron, blanketed in lavender flowers.

Other trees adding height to garden beds range from the ubiquitous, like the crape myrtle, to the curious, like the Franklin tree that's extinct in the wild, to the exotic, like a tall Japanese umbrella tree.

Away from the landscaping is a sunny hilltop where Warner cultivates irises for her small Draycott Gardens business and where "guest" irises are growing for the Siberian and Species Iris Convention set for May 2018 in the Baltimore area.

Last year, as her peonies bloomed, Warner was adding more perennials, even as she vowed to cut back on gardening.

Bollinger joked, "I'd hate to think it what it would be like if she decided to expand."

Tips for pretty peonies

Upperco resident Carol Warner, who gives talks on peonies as well as irises, offers these tips for growing the popular flowers:

Decide which kind you want. Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground and re-emerge each spring; they often need staking. Tree peonies have woody stems and are perennial. The cross of the two, Itoh hybrids, have big flowers and die back each year but rarely require staking.

Plant peonies where you really want them. They thrive in the same location for decades. Don't crowd them.

Make sure they get plenty of sun. Peonies can also thrive in filtered sun and well-drained soil

Use fertilizer. Warner advises applying it once a year (fall is best), particularly if the soil is acidic or if you use pine needles for mulch.

Buy from a reputable vendor. Look for one that sells only peonies or a lot of peonies. The American Peony Society (americanpeonysociety.org) is a good place to start.

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