Her name was Bernice, and she lived along a little traveled road in northwest Georgia. From her house you could see the long ridge of Lookout Mountain, which starts in Alabama to the west and ends abruptly at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the east. An expert dahlia grower, Bernice got around her garden on a hillside above her house by putting down pieces of carpet from the mills in nearby Dalton, Georgia. One of her legs had been amputated, and this way her crutches would not sink down into the rich earth. The carpet remnants also kept the weeds down and mimicked the role of mulch to keep the soil cool around the plants.
The dahlias were planted in rows, and the flowers ranged from small, rounded balls to big, shaggy cactus types with pointed petals. Each plant had been meticulously staked, labeled and groomed to perfection. The colors were dazzling.
But as spectacular as those flowers of the moment were, Bernice was more proud of her peonies, and that's what we mostly talked about when we sat on her front porch. She had dozens of plants all around the house, which didn't look like much on this mid-September day.
Most of her peonies had come from her mother up north. Bernice had brought them here to this valley and planted them all in the month of September. That was the key, she said, to success with peonies. The plants don't like to be moved, she reminded me, but if it's necessary, you should transplant them or divide them in September.
I rushed home, got out my catalog from a nursery in Missouri, and ordered several peonies. One of the plants I chose was 'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt'. I liked the picture (but I liked all the pictures) of the pale pink bloom, but I picked this peony over others because that was the name of my Metro stop when I worked in Paris long ago (as good a reason as any, I must have thought).
At any rate, this roundabout story explains how the peonies in the photograph above came to be in my living room. The other peonies I ordered have disappeared, but 'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt' survived and has rewarded me with big fragrant flowers for twenty plus years.
Every year when the red tips of Mrs. Roosevelt poke through the ground, I think of Bernice, sitting among her dahlias and talking about all of her beloved flowers, especially her peonies. I know it's important to plant peonies at ground level in the South so they'll get enough cold. But I also want to give the plants the best chance for success by following Bernice's advice and getting them in the ground in September. I see by the calendar I need to hurry; there aren't that many days left in the month.