Growing Concerns 92: Fernleaf peony, African violet

Buying fernleaf peony

I saw a Paeonia tenuifolia at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario. It might be called fernleaf peony. The delicate foliage caught my eye, beautiful though not even in bloom. I saw one in a catalog for $45.00. Do you know of a local source, possibly for a little less money? - P.R. -

Fernleaf peony is a charmer, aptly named for its laciness. It's half the size of the more popular border peony, and a bit of a tease - the foliage dies back by midsummer. It's touchy to propagate and slow to grow so it often carries a hefty price tag. Yet, there's a chance you can get one for less if you shop around.

Here are two sources near you: Telly's (on John R north of Big Beaver, Troy, MI) carries it, and owner George Papadelis makes it a point to keep his prices reasonable. A perennial connoisseur, he carries more species and varieties than most local suppliers. He doesn't carry the straight species but does carry the larger flowered, longer blooming variety ‘Flore Plena.’

Goldner Walsh Nursery (Orchard Lake east of Telegraph in Pontiac, MI) also has fernleaf peony. When I need a good-sized specimen or unusual plant, that's one of my first stops or calls.

No matter where you are, don't hesitate to call local garden centers and ask for certain species. Use the botanical name, since ordering or inquiring by common name can lead to confusion and disappointment. Don't worry about pronunciation. The international scientific community agreed to base names on Latin and Greek because these are unchanging, dead languages. Thus there is world-wide agreement - but we've learned that it applies primarily to the spelling of the names, not pronunciation. Most professionals are as hesitant as an uninitiated gardener when it comes to saying a new name out loud - so we begin by spelling it out over the phone or pointing it out on a list.

You can also get plants at Farmers' Markets. When we go to distant cities to design gardens, we check into the local Farmers' Market to find suppliers, learn about local conditions and identify suitable species.

Farmers' Markets can surprise you. There's in-season produce, cut flowers, fresh herbs, annual and perennial plants, trees and shrubs. Growers are knowledgeable, helpful, and often their plants are field grown so they're already “hardened off” (adapted to cold air and frost) for early spring planting.

African violets

I purchased an African violet about 3 years ago. The plant flowered for 1-1/2 years and since then hasn't had any blooms. The plant appears to be very healthy, and hasn't lost more than 3 or 4 leaves in all this time. I haven't changed its location in the house since I brought it home. What can I do to make it bloom again? - M.P. -

African violets (Saintpaulia species and hybrids) do take a rest between periods of flowering, but yours has taken a really extended break. Since it's healthy looking, I'll assume you're already meeting an African violet's minimum needs. That's 12-14 hours per day of fluorescent light or full sun but protection from hot, midday summer sun. They like it humid and warm - between 63 and 77°F, with a maximum 5°F difference between day and night temperatures. They should be fertilized every week at half strength or twice a week at quarter strength, with a monthly flush - lots of plain water to rinse out accumulated fertilizer salts.

As for blooming, we checked with an expert. Veteran gardener Josephine Peterlin helped us out last year with her prescription for healthy and recently contacted me with great advice about African violets.

“I tried for years to grow African violets and had little success until I developed the perfect formula for care. Now my violets are huge, lush green and topped with bunches of flowers. Once through blooming they rest about three weeks and then again send up many buds. The flowers last a long time.”

“Here's my secret. To 1-1/2 gallons of water I add 2 tea bags (black tea). I let this steep for 3 days then remove the tea bags. I then add 14 drops of Schultz Instant Liquid Plant Food or a store-bought African violet food.”

“My violets sit in glass custard cups and I feed them twice a week from the bottom. I never repot them, they last for years. I remove some bottom leaves if they get too large.”

Josephine's recipe makes use of at least four sound principles.

African violets prefer neutral or slightly acid water and soil, 6.5 to 7.0 on the pH scale. Tea provides natural tannic acid. Hard water and softened water should be avoided.

Plants with hairy leaves like African violet should be watered from the bottom or very carefully, directly on the soil surface, not wetting the leaves. Let the pot sit in a basin of water for 15 minutes and soak water through its drainage hole and sides. This prevents fungus growth and “burned” spots on the foliage.

Too much nitrogen is not a good thing for mature, flowering plants. African violet fertilizers contain less nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is the first number in the formula on a fertilizer label. Any water soluble fertilizer with a formula like that of Schultz's Instant (8-14-9 plus micronutrients) or New Plant Life (5-8-7 plus trace elements) will do the trick. Both Schultz's and New Plant Life are available at Frank's Nursery and Crafts.

African violets bloom best when their roots fill the pot. Given a bigger pot, they devote attention to leafy growth.