The Times West Virginian

May 23, 2012

Spring’s showstoppers

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT —  

Piney.
Penny.
Pe-OH-ny.
PE-uh-ny.
Call them what you want, but for Connie Ahrens, peonies — spring’s original old-timey showstoppers — evoke memories of her grandfather Dan Steiniger.
“There was this big peony at his house, and I could not pass it without sticking my face in it when I was a kid. I just had to inhale that amazing fragrance,” she said.
“He was the original organic gardener, way before it was popular. He had amazing flowers. I’d come home for lunch, and my grandma (Hazel Steiniger) would have cut flowers and wrapped them in waxed paper for my teacher.”
Even when she moved to Washington, D.C., she kept flowers in her life, whether it was buying $1 bouquets at a little flower shop or strolling through the city’s flower gardens.
When she lived in Maryland, try as she might, her flowers just didn’t make it because of the clay soil, “despite the hundreds of pounds of compost and manure and peat,” she said.
She’d managed to grow a peony — “a puny little peony,” she said laughingly — “no bigger than if you put your thumb and finger together. We thought that was as good as it gets.”
Then she moved to Fairmont, and her flower-craving soul was happy.
“The soil in my yard has never really been disturbed, and it grows everything beautifully.”
She cartered that puny peony to Fairmont years ago. Now, that peony has grown “up to my armpits and has hundreds of blooms,” she said with a laugh.
“I swear you can watch them grow inches taller from day to day,” she said. “That really is triumph over adversity!”
The trick is planting the peony, she said. The eye at the top of the root must be no more than 2 inches below the surface of the soil.
“If you just plunk it in, it probably won’t bloom. Dig a hole, pack a cone in it and spread the roots. Lay a board across the top and measure down. If it’s not 2 inches, make it 2 inches. Once it’s planted properly, the peony will go on forever. You make them happy, and they’ll make you happy.
“They’re so old-timey.”
Peonies are the attention-getters in her garden. Their large, showy blossoms come in many colors ... bright, deep pink ... delicate raspberry sorbet ... elegant festiva maxima’s white flowers.
OK, the big peony question is: Are the ants that cover the buds beneficial to the plant? 
Some say yes. Some say no. But it seems ants are not required for the flowers to open. 
“Peonies are gorgeous, but one good rain and they’re gone,” she said. “At least this year, they’re falling apart naturally.”
Her garden is a haven for many other old-fashioned flowers as well, like the weigela bush, which delights her with its pink-and-white blossoms.
“It’s not fancy by any stretch of the imagination,” she said. “But it’s what I like.”
The mountain laurel, with its tiny flowers, “looks so pretty in with the peonies,” she said of the rhododendron’s little cousin.
“I don’t know if it’s my childhood, but I love old-timey flowers,” she said. “They’re just like what my grandma had in her garden.”
The morning sun garden is crowded with hostas, Japanese anemones, astilbes, columbines, dianthus, perennial geranium, asters, sunflowers and even a butterfly bush in the background.
Have deer? Try this trick: Plant astilbe.
“The leaves are slightly hairy. Deer will leave it alone. But they love hostas. It’s like candy to them.”
Her $15 knock-out rose bush (“It will knock your socks off,” she said of the scent) will bloom all summer, she said. “And you don’t have to do anything.
“Every year I see a neat little critter or bug in the garden,” she said. “One year I saw an electric blue dragonfly.
“And I saw a praying mantis nest hatch. There were so many of then. I came back half an hour later and half were gone. They’re carnivorous and eat each other. But they get so big, you probably don’t want a hundred in your yard.
“My garden is my happy place,” she said. “I love my house, but when life just is not good, I come out here and calm down. I feel my blood pressure drop.
“One time, we were running late and I said (to Steve, her late husband), ‘I need to come out to the garden.’
“He said, ‘Connie, you’re already running late.’ And I said, ‘Listen. You could put up with my bad mood for the rest of the evening or you could give me 15 minutes in the garden.’
“And he said, ‘Bye!’”
She laughed.
“My family know what I need to do to get recentered. That’s all I need.”
Every Wednesday through June, Take 5 will be strolling through our readers’ lush gardens. To have yours featured, contact Debbie Wilson at 394-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.