Heavenly Gardens await: Highland County man filling garden with peonies
By ANGELA SHEPHERD
Atop a hill on Buckley Road in Highland County lies “Heavenly Gardens,” which in a couple of months’ time will likely look just as the name implies.
In mid-February, the landscape all blends together. Everything is brown, along with last year’s leaves that blanket the ground, and broken only by little rectangular signs scattered about across the grounds that tell of the plant that lives nearby.
But, if you look closely at the seeming sticks poking out of the ground, surrounded by a mound of oak leaf mulch and micro-nutrients, you can begin to see the shape of a tree peony and if you look closer you can see the buds that have already formed on parts of the core structure, on one plant nearly twenty.
A tree peony, distinguished from its herbaceous counterpart by the fact that it retains a woody “habit” above ground, essentially a trunk, can live to extend more than one generation, with some reports saying that tree peonies have lived past the century mark and more.
Donald Rothwell has marked most of his plants with signs in his gardens that range from tulips, lilies, and daffodils to his beloved tree peonies.
Rothwell really began his gardening with tulips, of which he has about 700 bulbs planted that will likely be on display by mid-April, and some of them waist high.
About 15 years ago, Rothwell bought a tree peony bush out of a catalogue because he liked how it looked and “just wanted to see what it was like.” He said he wanted to try something different, something not common in Highland County and that helped his choice along too.
After purchasing the bush, his research has carried him to the variety of tree peonies he has today, which includes the Imperial, Chinese and Japanese varieties, that bloom in a range of colors.
Within the last five years, Rothwell has begun to raise his own from the seeds of his existing plants. It is the plants that he has raised that he has sold in the last few years.
The first he raised was planted about four years ago and last spring had nine blooms, he said.
About 100 tree peonies are planted on Rothwell’s property. What are now but woody stems shooting up from the earth and a generous layer of oak leaf mulch and micro-nutrients, by the first weekend in May will be full of green leaves and, hopefully, big and full peony blooms.
Rothwell planted that first bush in 1999, a Seidi and light pink in color. Nearly a decade later, Rothwell began pollinating the flower heads in an effort to get more seeds. He also began raising his own from these seeds.
In January, after soaking the seeds in a special solution containing aspirin, he planted 25 seeds from China, where the tree peonies originated centuries ago, and said these are a solid blue. Now, he is waiting to see if any of them spring forth from the pot they share.
This pot of hopeful seedlings sits next to two bags of already spouted seedlings, nestled securely in a cut out bag of top soil awaiting their turn to be planted in the earth.
Two years ago, Rothwell put together a book, “The History and Growth of Tree Peonies,” that details the plant and includes many colorful photographs of his own plants.
“I really baby them,” Rothwell said.
When the tree peonies are in bloom, Rothwell covers each with an umbrella to protect them from the direct sun and any rain that may fall. The blooms, which can be several inches in diameter, will only last a short time and by protecting them, the life of the blooms is extended a bit, he said. Also, every two years he adds lime to the soil to help keep the pH balanced.
In August, the bushes start to build buds which lay dormant until the spring. Also in August, Rothwell will strip the bushes of their foliage but he does not prune any of the woody growth of the main trunk but cuts the shoots near to the main trunk. The buds, which appear in August, remain and are the signs of a healthy plant and an indication of where new growth will be occurring.
The main thing, Rothwell said, is to be patient. Some of the bushes have bloomed a year after planting. Others, he said, have taken up to five years to give their first bloom and sometimes those blooms may not be numerous, but he said it is worth it.
In the warmer months, Rothwell said he will spend an average of five hours a day outside tending his plants. He loves to talk to people and his gardens have attracted numerous garden clubs within the state as well as some out-of-state visitors. He welcomes all who just want to have a look.
A path of pavers winds down a gentle slope towards a small creek, over which a wooden bridge is perched. While the tree peonies are nearer the front of the property, along the path are tulips and daffodils and lilies that come spring will likely provide the observer with a plethora of flora to enjoy.
This year, Rothwell anticipates the flowers to be in full bloom by mid-April and the tree peonies in the first week of May. Visitors are welcome to take a stroll through the gardens or to pull up and look out over the colorful bounty.
The best idea for those planning a visit is to call ahead and see what is blooming.
“I enjoy talking to people,” Rothwell said adding that he welcomes anyone interested to visit his gardens.
Rothwell’s “Heavenly Gardens” are located at his home at 7966 Buckley Road, just off SR 247 outside Hillsboro, in Highland County. He can be reached by calling 937–509-2606.
(Angela Shepherd is a staff writer for the Hillsboro Times Gazette.)