Wednesday, June 12, 2013


     While my back was turned we somehow ended up in the middle of peony season. Now I am in a rush to celebrate before the show is all over. Peonies are indeed some of nature's most gorgeous flowers. Their size and vibrant colors can be almost overwhelming. As cut flowers they can add fragrance to our homes in addition to visual beauty.

     But while their beauty makes us gasp, they can also make us gnash our teeth in despair. Their sins are notorious: 

     They flop -- and it is hard to admire a beauty who insists on staring at the ground.

     Second, we are not their only lovers.
Ants, too, find them irresistible. Woe to any who fail to inspect their blossoms before bringing them indoors.

     But worst of all, their lives are fleeting. We are lucky to experience more than two weeks of glory before the display is over. Sometimes not even that if a good thunderstorm comes along at the right time.

     In short, the life of a peony-lover is at best bitter-sweet.

     Nothing can make  a peony what it is not, but there are a few steps we can take to ease the pain.

     I keep the ants at bay with a combination of boiling water and cayenne pepper. 

     There are also a large variety of hoops and cages dedicated to fighting flops. My answer to this problem, however, is different. I am a passionate advocate for the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa). This shrub form of the peony has a woody stem that simply will not flop. Tree peonies are expensive and sometimes have to mature two to three years before producing their first bloom. But once they flower there is not a more spectacular bloom on the planet.

Paeonia suffruticosa

     Finally, for those of you who are really obsessed, it is possible to more than double your peony season by researching carefully. Different varieties of peony bloom at somewhat different times, so if you pick your cultivars well you can end up with a rolling cascade of flowers that lasts several weeks.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Note marsh grasses and water lilies growing in this pool.

     Back in March I wrote a bit about ponds in the home landscape. Today I thought I would mention two recent permutations on the modern pond. The first began in Austria and has spread through Europe and reached Canada and the West coast of the US. This is the environmentally correct natural swimming pool. No chlorine and other chemicals here. Instead, the pool uses a more elaborate variation of the system of physical and biological filters used by the fish ponds I described earlier. Pumps keep the water aerated and move it over and through gravel colonized by beneficial bacteria as well as through the roots of water plants that absorb nutrients that would otherwise turn to waste.

     In addition to private pools like that shown above, Europe sports large public pools that service hundreds of swimmers at a time -- all without chemicals. A similar public pool is scheduled to open in the Twin Cities next summer.

     At the other end of the spectrum is a water feature designed for those who prefer less "biology." You can have the sights and sounds of running water and a completely landscaped falls and stream without a body of standing water. Instead of a pond, the stream feeds into a mass of river pebbles and sinks out of sight. Beneath the pebbles lies a hidden reservoir and a pump that recirculates the water.

This sketch shows the secret of a "pondless" waterfall.

          I personally would never give up the joys of having fish and a full ecosystem (in which, by the way, fish eat mosquito eggs). But for those who want the sights and sounds of water without worrying about the health of other creatures, a pondless waterfall may be just the ticket.

This long stream vanishes into the rocks at the bottom of the hill.