Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Peony time comes to foothill farm

The colder it gets in winter, the bigger the peonies bloom.

A good dose of chill seems to enhance the size of these old-fashioned spring flowers. December’s deep freeze paid off in gigantic, fluffy peonies.

Enjoy that beauty while you can. A spike in Sacramento temperatures in late April doomed Valley-grown peonies to a short but gorgeous moment in the sun. But at higher elevations, they’re just now reaching their peak of bloom.

Starting Friday, Dragonfly Peony Farm near the Sierra foothills town of Wilseyville opens its gates to visitors for its annual Open Garden. The event continues Fridays and weekends until June 1.

Peony farmer Julia Moore has more than 1,000 peonies at Dragonfly, a mostly online nursery about two hours from Sacramento. At nearly 2,800 feet elevation, the farm feels spring’s warmth a tad later than the Valley. But by mid-May, the large, graceful flowers cover the bushes in bushels of blooms.

“People can spend hours here, just wandering around, taking photos – and they do,” Moore said during a prior visit.

Peonies are one of those flowers that refuses to bloom in such places as Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, but thrives in Northern California.

“You need some winter chill to make them bloom,” Moore said. “But if you can grow apples, you can grow peonies. They’re super-easy.”

For foothill gardeners, peonies have another bonus: Deer won’t eat them. Gophers don’t like them, either.

They also are relatively drought-tolerant. Once established, these perennials need little care; just a little bone meal before bloom time. One plant can last 30 to 100 years.

Also long lasting in the vase, peonies make excellent cut flowers. But the show lasts longer when they’re still on the bush. And they smell as good as they look.

Said Moore, “At the peak of bloom, the scent is just heavenly.”

More Greener Gardens

After the success of last month’s Elk Grove Greener Gardens tour, now it’s Roseville’s turn.

Next Saturday, the city of Roseville’s Utility Exploration Center teams with EcoLandscape California for a day full of water-saving ideas. A DIY expo will feature lots of hands-on advice on how to convert sprinklers to more-efficient irrigation, troubleshoot leaks and the easiest ways to take out a lawn.

During the ongoing drought, Roseville (along with many other cities) has asked residents to cut water use by 20 percent or more. In the Sacramento Valley, landscaping accounts for up to 65 percent of residential water use. That makes outdoor irrigation a likely target for potential savings.

Families can sign up now to take a self-guided tour of Roseville front yards where homeowners made the commitment to ditch the turf and switch to unthirsty landscaping.

In particular, Roseville’s Greener Gardens Tour focuses on participants in the city’s “Cash for Grass” program. These homeowners received rebates for lawn removal. But they also had to agree to replace that grass with new water-wise landscaping.

“By removing some or all of their turf, they’re doing their part to reduce the amount of water they use – and you can, too!” said tour coordinator Cheryl Buckwalter, executive director of EcoLandscape California. “The Roseville Greener Gardens Tour is designed to encourage the use of ‘river-friendly landscaping’ techniques and to demonstrate that you, too, can have a beautiful, water-wise garden.”

This change, and water savings, don’t happen instantaneously. Even drought-tolerant plants need water to get growing and become established. But the transformation from a traditional turf-heavy landscape to a more-sustainable alternative is a process.

“Use this time to plan and then start taking action,” Buckwalter said. “Every step taken today to reduce landscape water use will benefit our future supply of water, protect local waterways, and help us be part of the solution to the environmental challenges we all face.”

For more details or to sign up for the tour, go to

And what to plant in that water-wise garden? The UC Davis Arboretum’s teaching nursery hosts its summer clearance sale next Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., featuring its “New Front Yard” series of low-water and beautiful alternatives to traditional turf and landscaping. Also find many of the popular Arboretum All-Stars, more water-wise choices to replace that soon-to-be-brown lawn.