Planting and care of peonies

How to grow peonies

There are few plants that can beat the hardy, deciduous peony when it comes to flamboyant flowers. The giant blooms can often be the size of dinner plates. They’re stunning.

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There are three types of peonies: herbaceous types, which die back to ground level every winter; tree peonies, which are taller and more woody and keep their frame throughout winter (they’re small shrubs and not trees); and intersectional hybrids, which are a cross between tree and herbaceous types (these are not so readily available).

Follow our detailed Grow Guide, below.

Plant peonies in a rich but well-drained soil in a position of full sun. Deep red peonies in a mixed border

Where to grow peonies

Plant peonies in a rich but well-drained soil in a position of full sun. Avoid planting these often expensive plants in a waterlogged soil. The majority of herbaceous peonies prefer a neutral or slightly alkaline soil.

Tree peonies need a sheltered position and are more tolerant of acid soils.

Adding organic matter to a planting hole for peonies

Planting peonies

Bare-root plants should be planted as soon as they arrive. Peonies prefer being planted in autumn or spring. Ensure that you don’t plant them too deeply – this will yield poor results. Mix in plenty of well-rotted organic matter before planting. Apply a balanced fertiliser in spring.

Avoid overwatering newly planted peonies as this is a common cause of plant failure.

As the flowers are so weighty peonies, especially the herbaceous types, will require a plant support.

Plant support at the base of a peony

Propagating peonies

Herbaceous peonies can be propagated by division in autumn. Cut the faded foliage back and lift the plant with a garden fork. Remove as much of the garden soil as possible and with a knife cut off sections of the crown. Each section should have at least three buds and plenty of root. Replant straight away in the garden.

Don’t try to divide tree peonies. Instead, you may be able to try layering a pliable stem, or sowing seed.

Paeonia ‘Nippon Beauty’

Peonies: problem solving

The most common problem is peony wilt. This is a botrytis that causes the stems to rot. To avoid this fungal attack avoid planting plants too close together. If you see leaves with dark spots on them remove them as this will help to reduce the spread. When cutting back herbaceous types in autumn clear up all the foliage to avoid reinfection in spring.

Peony buds are very appealing to ants. It’s not unusual to see the buds crawling with ants. Don’t worry, they won’t damage the plant.

Cutting back a herbaceous peony to the base

Peony care

Herbaceous peonies should be cut back hard in autumn to ground level. Tree peonies do not need pruning. All you need to do is remove the faded seed heads in autumn. Don’t be tempted to pick off the faded foliage in autumn – let it fall off naturally. Avoid pruning tree peonies hard back as they are often grafted onto herbaceous peonies.

When weeding borders try to avoid stepping on the newly forming buds of the herbaceous types.

Rabbit-resistant peonies

Peonies tend to be trouble free. Rabbits and deer are not keen on eating them.

Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’

Great peonies to grow

  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Angel Cheeks’ – herbaceous type with candy floss pink double flowers in May and June. Height of 70cm
  • Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’ – a very popular herbaceous peony. Bright pink outer petals and lemon petaloids. Flowers in May and June. Height 90cm
  • Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ – large, double, pale-pink flowers in May. This herbaceous type is perfumed and ideal for cutting. Reaches 90cm
  • Paeonia ‘Mrs William Kelway’ –a popular tree peony with semi-double pure white flowers in May or June. Reaches 120cm when mature

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  • Paeonia ‘Souvenir de Maxine Cornu’ – a tree peony with double yellow and orange blooms in May or June. Flowers hang downwards. Really over the top – a showstopper. Reaches a height of 120cm

Paeonia (Peonies)

Peonies are a classic ingredient of the perennial border and have been in cultivation for over 2000 years. Beloved for their abundant blooms, the beauty of their exquisite flowers, their delightful fragrance, and their bold foliage changing shades over the seasons, peony flowers add a dazzling splash of color in the landscape. Virtually carefree once established, they live for generations, are deer proof and produce some of the best cut flowers – making them one of Nature’s loveliest perennials! Peony bouquets are a favorite of florists and many brides-to-be. Why not enjoy a peony bouquet at home?

Basic Facts About Peonies

The genus Paeonia is divided into 3 groups: Tree Peonies, Herbaceous Peonies, and Intersectional Peonies.

Herbaceous Peonies

  • Most well known type of peonies, they do best in hardiness zones 3 to 8 and are available in an incredible array of flower form, color and fragrance. They bloom in late spring – early summer, for approximately 7-10 days.
  • Herbaceous Peonies grow up to 2-3 ft. (60-90 cm), in a lush, bushy mound of glossy green divided foliage which remains attractive throughout the summer until frost and often colors up in the fall.

‘Shirley Temple’

Paula Fay’

‘Coral Charm’

‘Lady Alexandra Duff’

Tree Peonies

  • Tree peonies are woody perennial shrubs which thrive in hardiness zones 4 to 9 . They bloom before the herbaceous peonies (April – May) and produce incredibly large flowers.
  • Tree peonies stand upright and do not require staking. They grow slowly up to 3-7 ft. (90-210 cm).
  • After the bloom, tree peonies provide a lovely structure to the garden with their deep green foliage in summer turning bronze and purple in fall.

Intersectional Peonies or Itoh Hybrids

  • Hybrids produced by crossing a tree peony with a herbaceous peony.
  • These peonies produce up to 50 or more huge flowers on sturdy short stems that do not require staking.
  • They generally bloom after the herbaceous peonies for 3-4 weeks.
  • Excellent as cut flowers, they are valued for their terrific array of yellow and gold colors, which are not widely available in herbaceous peonies.
  • These plants have the lovely leaf form of the tree peonies, but die to the ground in the winter like herbaceous peonies.
  • Strong and healthy, with a nice rounded bush form, they are typically shorter than most bush peonies. Growing up to 2.5 ft. (75 cm) tall by about 3 ft. wide (90 cm), their compact form and lovely shape allow them to be placed at the front of the border.

‘Bartzella’

‘Cora Louise’

‘Garden Treasure’

General facts

  • Peonies enjoy full sun or part shade in rich, fertile, medium moisture, well-drained soils.
  • Deer resistant, attractive to butterflies, they are virtually pest free.
  • Low maintenance, peonies are long-lived (may live up to 50 years!).

Peonies Blooming Season

  • The overall peony blooming period last 6 weeks, starting with the tree peonies, followed by the herbaceous peonies and finishing up with the intersectional peonies (Itoh peonies). Blooms occur in late spring – early summer, starting in April and through the months of May and June. It should be noted that the blooming season will last longer in cooler weather while it will be profuse but fairly brief if the weather is very hot and sunny.
  • Sadly, peonies flower for a relatively short period of time, approximately 7-10 days. However, they do not all flower at the same time and are classified with a blooming time, ranging from Very Early to Very Late season, relative to other peonies. Therefore, to fill your garden with continuously blooming peonies throughout the season to up to 6 weeks, you may plan to plant a variety of cultivars, from Very Early- to Very Late season bloomers. Learn how to extend your peonies season to up to 6 weeks.

‘Cytherea’
Early Season

‘Monsieur Jules Elie’
Early Mid Season

‘Krinkled White
Mid Season

‘Sarah Bernhardt’
Late Season

How to Choose Peonies

There are over 3 000 peony cultivars available (!!!) and you may want to determine first what you are exactly looking for before buying. Here are a few criteria that will help you find the right peony for your garden.

  • Award winners: outstanding peonies granted prestigious awards from the American Peony Society or the Royal Horticultural Society
  • Bad weather: peonies that can withstand rain, wind or heat
  • Bloom time: peonies flower for a relatively short period of time, approximately 7-10 days, during an overall blooming season which lasts 6 weeks.
  • Color: peonies are available in a wide array of colors including white, pink, red, coral, or yellow.
  • Form: peony flowers may be single, semi double, fully double, Japanese and offer various lovely shapes: Anemone and Single (1 row of guard petals), Lotus (2 to 3 rows of guard petals), Chrysanthemum (4 to 8 rows of guard petals), Rose (up to 20 rows of guard petals), Golden Circle (golden stamens ring at the heart of the flower), Crown (1 to 2 rows of guard petals and an inner tuft of short curly petals) or Hundred Proliferate (very large flowers, fuller than the rose form)
  • Fragrance: peonies may be unscented, slightly, moderately or very fragrant
  • Size: peonies range from 2 ft. (60 cm) to 7 ft (210 cm)
  • Type: herbaceous peony, tree peony or Itoh peony
  • No staking: peonies that do not require support

Landscaping with Peonies

  • A well-selected peony garden may have plants in bloom for up to 6 weeks! Low maintenance, peonies are long-lived perennial which add romance and bring interest to the garden, from spring to fall. They offer beautiful and changing foliage color…..
  • Peonies are very arresting plants for the landscape and may be planted individually or in mass in borders, beds, wall-side borders, cottage gardens. They are ideal for bordering a walk or driveway or as informal hedges.
  • Peonies do not respond well to transplanting, so choose your planting location carefully.
  • The best time to plant peonies is in early fall, so they will have time to become established in the soil before winter. They do not flower the first year of planting, and may take up to two years to produce their showy, fragrant blooms.
  • Peonies enjoy plenty of companion plants, including Alliums, Bearded Irises (Iris germanica), Siberian Irises (Iris siberica), Columbines (Aquilegia), Spring Bulbs, Roses and small shrubs and trees.

Paeonia “Felix Crousse” in the Rose Garden in June at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, Kent. ©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

Peonies: Planting

  • Peonies may be planted in the fall, so the plants may become established before the first hard frost.
  • Peonies grow best in cool climates (Hardiness zones 3-8). They need a pronounced period of winter chilling in order to bloom well. In the southern states, choose early-blooming varieties, plant them about an inch deep, and provide some shade.
  • Peonies need at least a half-day of sun (minimum of six hours of sun a day). Full sun is better as Peonies bloom best in sunny spots except in the South, where afternoon shade is appreciated and will help the flowers last longer.
  • These plants require good drainage. If your soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost. Incorporate about 1 cup of bonemeal into the soil.
  • Peonies love deep, fertile, humus-rich, moist soils. Soil pH should be neutral (pH 7.0) or at the most, only slightly acidic.
  • Space Peonies three to four feet apart (90-120 cm) to ensure good air circulation. Plant them away from trees or shrubs as peonies don’t like to compete for food and moisture. Provide shelter from strong winds.
  • Dig a hole about two feet deep and two feet across. Add a 4 in. layer of organic matter (10 cm) such as compost, pine bark, or well-aged manure. A half cup of a good plant food (10-6-4), bone meal or superphosphate should be mixed into this layer.
  • Set the root, so the eyes face upward on top of the firmed soil, placing the root just 2 in. (5 cm) below the soil surface.
  • Backfill the hole, making sure that the soil doesn’t bury the root deeper than 2 in. (5 cm) or your Peony may not bloom. Water thoroughly.
  • Peonies do not flower the first year of planting, and may take up to two years to produce their showy, fragrant blooms.

Peonies: Care

  • Peonies almost thrive on neglect. Unlike most perennials, they don’t need to be dug and divided.
  • Peonies require regular, deep watering, specifically during the dry summer months.
  • Apply a spring layer of 2-4 in. (5-10 cm) organic mulch to help to preserve the soil moisture. This mulch must be removed and destroyed before winter and a new, fresh winter mulch of loose straw or evergreen boughs added, to help control disease.
  • Staking may be required as the large flowers tend to arch toward the ground and may be driven to the ground by hard rain.
  • Remove spent flowers as they fade, cutting to a strong leaf so that the stem doesn’t stick out of the foliage. Cut back after the foliage has died down in the fall to avoid any overwintering disease.

Peonies: Pests & Diseases

  • Few insect pests bother Peonies.
  • Peonies are prone to Verticillium

Plants I Love: peony

Years ago, on one of our early Jacaranda Cruises, a woman presented me with a cardboard toilet roll.

I was a bit surprised until I saw the round pink bud inside.

It was a single long stem of the‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peony. Over the next two weeks I was captivated as the bud gradually opened to a multitude of pink petals and a boss of golden stamens. I’ve been mad for peonies ever since and have admired them in peak perfection in gardens in England, Canada, USA and France, as well as in cool climate gardens in Australia.

Photo – Makoto Honda/.com

There are three types of peony: herbaceous peonies, which die back each year after flowering, then reshoot each spring; tree peonies, which are deciduous woody shrubs; and Itoh peonies that are a cross between the two. All three prefer a cold climate. Tree peonies are more reliable in milder areas than herbaceous types, though still need a few days of six degrees or less to initiate flowering.

Despite this general advice, there are gardeners who have success in less-than-cold climates. Dominic Wong, who grows peonies to perfection at his garden Chinoiserie, in Mittagong, NSW, says they can be grown in climates as warm as Sydney.

Katerina Sideridis proves him right. She has been growing herbaceous and tree peonies in her Hurlstone Park garden for 22 years. They are planted beneath a persimmon tree where they receive morning sunshine only, and in summer the blooms are protected under a cotton sheet. She feeds them with well-decayed horse manure and mushroom compost, placed around the plants in early spring before they shoot, and has had such success over the years that the tubers have spread two metres from the mother plant.

If you’re keen to try, these are Dominic’s tip tips:

  • The ideal position is morning sun, though they can withstand full sun. They need some sun to flower well.

  • Choose a well-drained spot and prepare the soil by digging in an 8-inch pot full of garden lime and another full of Dynamic Lifter.

  • Plant herbaceous peonies almost at the surface to get maximum winter chill, and plant tree peonies a little deeper to encourage suckering – more suckers equals more flowers.

  • Feed twice a year (Melbourne Cup Day and Anzac Day are good reminders) with a handful each of Sudden Impact for Roses, blood & bone and potash.

  • In mild areas, apply the ‘ice’ treatment: in the coldest winter month place a bag of ice on top of the tuber for at least ten consecutive nights to initiate flowering.

  • For long-lasting blooms protect them from rain and hot sun with parasols or umbrellas.

Where to buy

Chinoiserie sells all three types of peony when the garden is open or by appointment. The peonies in the garden are best seen mid-October to mid-November.

23 Webb St, Mittagong NSW. www.chinoiserie.com.au.

Also try Drewitts Bulbs and Van Dieman Quality Bulbs for peony tubers.

Erin Benzakein is the flower farmer and entrepreneur behind Floret Farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley. There, she grows, teaches, and shares the beauty of flowers with people from around the world, all while being a leader in the “field-to-vase” movement. In her new book Cut Flower Grow she details growing and harvesting instructions for beautiful blooms, including one of her favorites—peonies. The following is an excerpt.

Few flowers can contend with the ultimate queen of spring, the peony. Their large flower heads and billowy, ruffled blooms come in a dizzying array of pinks, corals, cranberries, whites, yellows, and reds. Many carry a sweet fragrance, and most are long-lasting in the vase. It’s no wonder they’re our most requested flowers for weddings and special events.

In addition to being hugely popular and excelling in the vase, peonies are also very easy to grow. They are separated into two different groups: herbaceous and tree peonies. The first group is the most commonly grown in gardens. Plants are easy to obtain, thrive in nearly every climate, and can live for over 100 years if cared for properly. Foliage emerges in early spring, and flowers are borne on the new season’s growth. In late autumn, the foliage dies back to the ground. It’s best to wait 2 to 3 years before harvesting from a newly planted peony; otherwise, you may affect its future growth. It’s difficult to resist the urge to pick flowers during this time, but the payoff will be a fully mature plant that will reward you with years of blooms.

How to Grow Peonies

Once established, peonies will flower abundantly for many years. Potted specimens can be purchased and planted in the spring, but the best results will come from bare-root stock that is dug and shipped dormant in the fall. These roots should be planted immediately so that they can start to establish before the cold of winter sets in.

Peonies prefer full sun, and you should give them at least six hours of uninterrupted bright daylight. Most soil types are fine, but standing water can be problematic, so be sure to find a spot that has good drainage.

Dig a hole two to three times as wide as the root, and amend the soil with a generous dose of well-rotted manure or compost and a phosphate-rich fertilizer such as bonemeal. Pay special attention to planting depth— if roots are planted too deeply they won’t flower properly, so nestle the roots just below the soil surface. These plants will grow large over time, so space them at least 3 feet (1 m) apart.

In the spring, before the foliage has emerged, top-dress the soil with sprinkle of bonemeal and a light mulch of compost, 2 inches (5 cm) deep. This will feed the new growth during the coming season.

Double-flowered types need extra staking to keep their flower heads supported under the weight of the massive blooms. Heavy spring rains can flatten a patch in a matter of minutes, so be sure to provide support early on.

Michele M. Waite

If needed, in autumn, divide any mature plants that have become crowded or aren’t producing well (this will happen after 8 to 10 years). Once the foliage has died to the ground, take a pitchfork, loosen the soil around the plants, and lift them out. Gently wash the roots clean of dirt so that their eyes (small, swollen red buds that will become next year’s flowering stems) are visible, then split the roots apart with a sharp knife. Make sure each root has at least 3 eyes attached, and replant elsewhere in the garden.

The most problematic disease for peonies is called botrytis, and it’s most common during wet spring weather. Proper plant spacing and good airflow will help, but sanitation is the real key to prevention. Monitor plants during the spring for signs of disease (including blackened, burned-looking leaves) and remove any infected foliage. Botrytis spreads rapidly, so be sure to toss the infected leaves in the garbage, not the compost. In the autumn, remove all dead foliage and instead of composting it, throw it in the trash or onto the burn pile.

Favorite Peony Varieties

Peonies come in a beautiful rainbow of pastel colors, and their flower forms vary from huge crinkled doubles to fringed singles, and everything in between.

Bowl of Beauty

A unique variety with rose-pink outer petals surrounding a fluffy, creamcolored center.

Michele M. Waite

Coral Charm

One of the first to flower, this vigorous, large-headed variety comes in a warm peachy-coral blend that fades as it opens. Because of its size, stake plants early. This is one of the most popular varieties on the farm.

Michele M. Waite

Duchesse De Nemours

This creamywhite, highly fragrant double variety has large domed blooms that glow the softest shade of yellow when fully open. This is my all-time favorite white peony.

Michele M. Waite

Raspberry Sundae

The name is perfectly fitting for this novelty variety that sports massive, ultraruffled pink flower heads that sit atop a lovely cup of wide-flaring creamy petals. To me, it looks like a big scoop of vanilla ice cream dripping with raspberry jam. It is a wonderful cut flower with a sweet, mild fragrance.

Michele M. Waite

How to Make Cut Peonies Last Longer

Peonies make wonderful, long-lasting cut flowers that generally persist for over a week. You can pick them as open as you like, but for the best vase life, harvest them while in bud. I aim for harvesting at the “soft marshmallow” stage—in the mornings I go through the plants and gently squeeze each flower bud, feeling for sponginess. If buds are still hard, then I leave them to ripen longer, but if they feel soft—similar to a marshmallow— I pick them. When harvesting, be sure to leave at least two sets of leaves on the stem so that the plant can continue to grow and store food over the summer.

Michele M. Waite

Cut stems can also be stored for later use; they will last for two to three weeks in the refrigerator. When storing, remove almost all of the leaves; bunch the stems together and slip them into a plastic bag with a few paper towels inside to absorb any excess moisture. Lay flat on the shelf in the produce area of the fridge and then check them every few days for signs of mold. Discard any that begin to rot. Upon removal, the flowers often look limp, but don’t worry. Recut the stems and place them immediately in warm water with flower preservative. The buds will open within 24 hours, and the blooms will last a good week in the vase.

Learn more in Erin’s new book, Cut Flower Garden, available on Amazon.

Irene Kim

Passion for Peonies! How to Plant, Grow and Care for Peonies in Your Garden!

How to Plant, Grow and Care for Peonies

Herbaceous peonies are handsome perennial shrubs that produce extraordinary, romantic blooms, many with exquisite fragrance, that thrive and bloom for 100+ years with little care. The key to growing spectacular peonies is getting them planted correctly. From that point on, little care is required for stunning blooms year after year.

When you plant a peony, you are participating in history. Your plant will grow and bloom for 100 years or more with little care. In the decades when people struggled to recover from the devastation of the American civil war, peonies were found blooming merrily in deserted, war torn fields, where nothing remained of the homesteads but the soot stained foundations. Blooming peonies gave hope that life persisted and beauty would come again.

Peonies are cherished for their enormous, romantic blooms. Though the blooming for any given peony shrub lasts just 1-2 weeks each spring, you can extend the blooming season of peonies in your garden by planting varieties that flower at different times within the peony blooming window. Let’s see how to get your peonies off to a perfect start!

How to Plant Peonies
What Climate for Growing Peonies

Before planting a peony, first determine if your climate is suitable for growing peonies. These are long-lived perennial shrubs that need a seriously cold winter in order to bloom. While some gardeners in more mild climates have had some success sometimes, a general rule of thumb is that peonies need thirty consecutive days below freezing to reliably bloom for you. All garden peonies thrive in climate zones 3-7. For gardeners in zone 8, select the early blooming peonies for best results, as this gives your plant time to fully bloom before the high heat of summer sets in.

I know how much gardeners in Southern California and Florida long to grow peonies. Don’t break your heart over a plant that needs a climate so different from your own. Insufficient winter chill is one of the two causes for peonies not to bloom.

When to Plant Peonies

Peonies can be successfully planted in the fall or the spring, but it becomes well established most easily when planted in the fall. Be sure to pant six weeks prior to the first hard ground freeze.

Select the Site to Plant Your Peony

Remember that planting a peony is a long term investment in your garden’s beauty, so take care when you select the site where you want to plant it. Peonies are genetically geared for the long haul – since they grow and bloom for a hundred years or more, they take a far reaching view of life. Do not expect blooms the first spring after planting. One or two might surprise you! For the first few seasons, the bloom production is very small, but building. From year three on, look for bushes loaded with blooms!
Peonies do not like having their roots disturbed. This is why the bloom production is so scanty when first planted. If you were to take a flourishing peony that reliably blooms heavily every year, dig it up and replant it just 3 yards away, the bloom production will crash, and it would be nearly as long to full bloom as if you had just planted it for the first time. So be sure you want it growing where you plant it!

Sun Exposure for Peonies

Plant your peony where it will get direct sun for eight or more hours a day. In climates with a very hot summer, plant for morning and afternoon sun, but provide a bit of light shade during the heat of the day.

Preparing Your Soil for Peonies

Peonies will thrive in a wide range of soils. To prepare your soil for planting your peony – dig a hole 12-18″ deep, breaking up compacted soil, and amending heavy clay with compost, dried grass clippings and dead leaves. Incorporate amendments as needed to ensure good drainage, and add about a cup of bone meal, well mixed into the soil at the bottom of the hole.

Identify the Eyes of Your Peony

Examine your bare root peony, looking for the “eyes”. Like the eyes on a potato, these are the points where new growth will develop. Often, (but not always), the eyes on a peony are a bright pink swelling. Take note of the side with the most eyes – you want that side facing up when you plant it.

Planting Depth for Peonies

The two most important requirements for peonies to bloom freely are a climate with sufficient winter chill and the correct planting depth!

Form a large cone of soil in the hole you dug, firming it down to eliminate air pockets as you go, with the top of the cone of soil rising almost to the level of the ground. Place the bare root peony on top of the cone, with its roots draping down. Position it with the side with the most eyes facing up. Back fill with loose soil, covering your peony root with no more than ½ – 1 ½ inches deep. This shallow depth is critical. Planted deeper, your peony plant will still grow healthy and strong, but with few or no blooms. Planting peony roots too deep is the single greatest cause for impaired blooming where the climate is sufficiently cold in winter.

Level the soil with the surrounding ground, tamp it down firmly and re-check the depth of your peony root. If it is deeper than 1 ½ inches, adjust it to the proper depth and water well. Once the water has been fully absorbed, again re-check the depth of the peony root to be certain is has not settled further below the surface of the soil.

Congratulations! Your peony is now planted perfectly! 🙂

Now that your peony is planted perfectly, let’s review the care you should provide.

Support Your Peonies

The large peony blooms will catch and hold rain, becoming so heavy that the stems can no longer hold them upright. This is particularly an issue for the “bomb” flower form varieties. It is a terrible disappointment to find your peony flowers finally open – only to have fallen face first into the mud. Add a ring style support when you first plant your peony, or in the early spring when new growth is first sprouting. New growth will grow up through the lattice, fully supported and obscuring the ring.

Watering Peonies

Provide moderate moisture for your peony plant. Understand that fewer, deeper waterings is best, as this will promote large, healthy roots.

Feeding Peonies

For best results, provide a yearly application of an all-purpose fertilizer with a top dressing of compost. Do not mulch your peony – the plant will respond as if it is planted too deeply.

Pruning Peonies

While strictly speaking, peonies do not need pruning, cutting them back in late fall prevents any insect damage or disease from overwintering in the plant and gives the garden a tidy appearance. Where two branches cross and rub against each other, select the lesser branch to be pruned right back to the base. That point of friction causes a weakness where insects or pathogens can move in.

Ants on Peonies

Just this morning, a customer said “I love growing peonies, but I just hate the ants!” This is a common complaint among gardeners. But I want to speak up for the ants, who are performing a crucial service for the peony, in exchange for food produced specifically as payment.

In Praise of Ants

Each enormous, fragrant peony bloom represents a significant investment of energy and resources by the plant in its bid to reproduce. These blooms are a wealth of nutrients many insects would love to feed on, thereby depriving the plant of reproduction and leaving an unsightly mess in place of that glorious flower. But nature has a solution to this problem! Peony buds produce a sweet nectar specifically to attract ants, who then attack any bud devouring insects, leaving the plant healthy and beautiful. By calling ants to come to its aid, the peony plant exchanges sweet nectar for the ants’ protection.

Don’t spray chemicals on your peony to kill the ants – they provide a valuable service. Instead, cut peony stems while the bud is still quite tight. Bring it indoors, and rinse the ants away. Place the stem in luke warm water and it will fully bloom in your vase.

I dearly love peonies, but I live and garden in too mild a climate to grow them. Can I enjoy them vicariously through you? 🙂 Please take a moment to leave a comment and let me know if you will be planting peonies this fall, or if you have any questions. I am happy to help!

Happy gardening!

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Slide show: 20 gorgeous peonies

What’s new: Itoh, or intersectional, hybrids are crosses between herbaceous and tree peonies. They grow to 3½ feet tall; pump out flowers in shades of lavender, pink, copper, yellow, or cream; and bloom over a longer period than standard herbaceous types.

Their stems are pencil thick―much stronger than those of herbaceous kinds―so they’re good at holding up big cups of petals.

Where to grow: Peonies thrive in cooler climates (Sunset zones 1–11; A1–A3), where they get pronounced winter chill. But some (see below) will grow well in warmer climates. All are also worth a try in dappled shade in zones 14–20. There, give plants afternoon shade and ample water.

When to plant: Set out container-grown plants in late April in warmer climates, May or June in cold-winter areas. Expect more bloom from 3-year-old peonies in 5-gallon containers.

How to plant

From nursery containers, in spring or fall: Loosen the soil and mix in generous amounts of compost, then place the plant in the ground with the top of its rootball level with the soil, taking care not to disrupt tender feeder roots. Or transplant it into a large (18- to 24-inch diameter) container that is wider than deep.

From roots, in fall: Plant herbaceous peony roots with eyes 2 inches deep in cold climates, 1 inch deep in warmer regions. Itoh hybrids should be planted 3 inches deep in cold climates, 2 inches deep in warmer areas.

How to water, feed: Water regularly. Feed with low-nitrogen fertilizer (such as 5-10-10) as the first leaves unfurl in spring, then again after the last flower fades.

When to pick: To harvest blooms for bouquets, cut stems just as flower buds begin to open (leave at least three leaves to nourish the plant for the following year); they’ll last up to a week in vases. Most varieties produce one bloom per stem, although Itoh hybrids produce more blooms per stem as the plants age.

Post-bloom care: In autumn, cut herbaceous and Itoh hybrid peonies to the ground; new growth will emerge the following spring.

Pick up a peony

Choose:

For cool climates: Three new Itoh hybrids (crosses between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies): ‘Bartzella’ (very large bright yellow blooms), ‘Pink Double Dandy’ (pink, of course), or ‘Yellow Doodle Dandy’.

For cool or warm climates: Four herbaceous favorites: ‘Blaze’ (bright red single), ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white double with crimson flecks in the center), ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (pink), or ‘Sea Shell’ (satiny pink single).

Shop: Buy plants (up to $100 at nurseries for Itoh hybrids, or $40 for standard herbaceous), starting in late April in warmer climates, May in cooler regions. You’ll get the most reliable bloom from 3-year-old plants in 5-gallon pots.

Tour and buy: Around 200 varieties of herbaceous and tree peonies start blooming in late March and continue into June at Chateau CharMarron Peony Gardens (5335 Sierra Rd., San Jose; 408/251-7048). Next month, view 300 varieties covering 10 acres at Adelman Peony Gardens (May 1–Jun 15; 5690 Brooklake Rd. N.E., Salem, OR; 503/393-6185).

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