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Tree peony is charming addition to exotic yard

For those who like large, showy blossoms, it's hard to beat peonies. Huge pink, red, white or yellow flowers the size of dinner plates cover the plants.

Although all peonies are exquisite, for sheer exotic beauty you can't beat the charm of the tree peony.A visit to Lyle Tregakis' garden is a visit to another garden world. Hidden behind his home is a quiet hideaway with a collection of some of the most beautiful plants you will ever see. Every time I visit this garden, I see something else to admire and something else to enjoy.

Traveling to this back-yard Mecca to see the wonderful tree peonies, you pass water features reminiscent of the canyons above Tregakis' Orem hideaway. The water seeps out of the sides of the rocks and puddles at the base. Like a secluded canyon glen, the walkway south of the house is adorned with hostas and other shade-loving plants.

As beautiful and unusual as the plantings in his garden are, Tregakis is humble when he describes it:

"My garden is for me. It is an oddity. The plants I grow are those that I love. They have special appeal to me and my wife, and we enjoy them very much. My collection may not be the most significant in many ways, but it includes the plants I want," he says.

"I have loved to garden for most of my life. My mom introduced me to her rosebuds, and I have kept that love of gardening for many years. . . . Gardening has never been a career but has been a life-long interest."

A principal and administrator in the Alpine School District, Tregakis has a penchant for peonies. He says his family grew them for cut flowers on Memorial Day.

"I always tried to get unusual colors and unusual flower forms. Since my garden only has a small amount of ground, I liked to try unusual plants, including unusual varieties of peonies," Tregakis says.

"One day I saw an ad for tree peonies and ordered a book from the American Peony Society. When I saw the beautiful pictures of the blossoms, I knew I had to have some. I dug up my other peonies and moved them to my kid's gardens to make room for the new ones that I wanted to try."

These seemingly delicate exotic beauties are actually very easy to grow, according to Tregakis. He hauled 25 yards of soil by wheelbarrow into his back yard to make the pH nearly neutral, which is what the plants prefer. They are fertilized with the rest of the yard and occasionally get a sprinkle of bone meal.

They require no special irrigation. Those in the back get irrigation water when it comes once a week while those closer to the house get sprinkled. Tregakis sees no difference in results between the two methods.

"Most people think the tree peonies are very tender, but they are perfectly hardy here and even in colder areas," Tregakis says. "I have never even had the buds nipped by the cold, which is more than I can say for my other peonies."

Tregakis advises planting peonies with the graft five inches below the ground. His advice to those who want to try these plants would be to spend the money and get quality plants.

"The plants I bought are sometimes three feet long with the roots. If you start with small plants you will be disappointed in the results. Buy named varieties, not just plants that are sold by the color of the blossom. Since they are not blooming, you cannot tell what you are going to get."

It takes seven years for these plants to come from seed to bloom size, and they do not come true from seed, so most of them are grafted. This is a slow process. You can also get root division or side shoots off older plants, but this is also very slow. Consequently the plants are expensive.

The least expensive peony in Tregakis' collection cost $35, and some of the special hybrids in catalogs sell for hundreds of dollars. Remember that these plants can live for centuries, so they are really worth the money if you have the right place to grow them.

Planting peonies in the fall gives them a chance to establish strong root growth before the foliage grows in the spring. They prefer about half sun and half shade to keep them from burning. Hot direct sun will quickly fade the delicate colors of the flowers.

Chinese Dragon has had as many as 65 blooms in one year. When you see their beauty, you know the expense and the wait were well worth it.

Tregakis' wife Doris also helps make their garden a place of beauty. A bronze statue is one of her creations. Her sculpture, ceramics, wood carving and paintings add a different kind of visual interest.

Lyle Tregakis is an avid supporter of many gardening projects and is a Utah State University Extension master gardener. His home has often been included in Utah county garden tours. He also enjoys growing many other interesting plants and has a wonderful bonsai collection, many unusual trees and shrubs and hostas.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulturist with the Utah State University Extension Service.