Today, cottage gardens are widely popular. As a fun part of this trend, you may see container peonies popping up as a big component of these gardens. It’s true that the popularity factor with these plants isn’t new as they’ve been staples for decades, but there is a new group of gardeners who are taking an avid interest in the stunning blooms. They like them for the aesthetic they bring to the space and the value they add.
If you’re trying to spice up your cottage garden or join in on the flowering growing trend, peonies are something to consider. You don’t need a huge backyard to get them thriving either, as container peonies are easy to manage. They may require more TLC than your other plant, but the showy flowers are well worth it. We’ll outline how to keep them happy below.
Peonies are large, showy, but delicate blooms that come in a host of colors and do wonderfully as container plants.
Before You Plant Your Container Peonies
Before you plant your container peonies, you’ll need to choose the correct container. Peonies are big bush plants, so they need a lot of space to do well. Luckily, if you have limited space, there are smaller cultivars you can choose from. Cinnabar Red is a very popular container peony, and it tops out at two feet tall.
No matter which variety you pick out, you should pick out a large pot with excellent drainage. Drainage is just as important as size when it comes to choosing one because peonies don’t like wet feet, and too much water can easily lead to root rot. Ideally, your pots or containers should be clay, wood, or plastic and around 20 gallons. Whiskey barrels make a great alternative pot for container peonies.
Choosing the correct cultivar is also essential to the success of your container peonies. Avoid cultivars that have unhealthy-looking stems or leaf spots when you buy them from your local garden center.
Peonies also adore light, and they need a minimum of six hours of sunlight every day. Next, you’ll want to ensure that you have the right soil. Peonies need well-draining, loamy soil that is slightly acidic to thrive. For extra drainage, you can mix some coconut peat or a peat alternative to help lighten the soil up.
Container Peony Growing Tips
Peonies actually have very specific requirements for proper growth. A few key points to remember when you’re growing container peonies include:
- Container peonies need to grow in full sun, so you have to choose a space that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day.
- Every fall, you’ll need to bring your peonies inside to overwinter safely.
- Peonies like to grow in a soilless potting medium, and you can mix your own or buy it in a store. This mixture should feature your soilless potting medium, compost, and a granular fertilizer to keep them healthy.
- Remember to fertilize your container peonies throughout the summer months and give each container an inch of water at minimum each week.
- You’ll need a large container, and typically five gallons is enough to grow most container peonies.
The great thing about having container peonies in your garden lineup is that they’re perennial, and they can survive for decades. A properly maintained plant can grow for years and divide as it grows.
Growing Peonies In Pots: How To Get Started
Peonies are a stunning plant to add to a container garden, and growing them in pots isn’t a hard process. Make sure that your growing zone is suitable for peonies, and they love to grow in areas that get 500 to 1,000 chill hours during the winter. This means that the temperatures need to fall between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you live in zones eight and nine and choose peonies, they may not get enough chill hours, and this causes the plants to refuse to flower. If you grow them in pots, there are things to know.
1. Find The Right Location For The Container
It’s best to put your container in the location you want it before you fill it. Peonies require large containers, so once you fill them, they’ll be heavy and hard to move. The best tips for finding the location include:
- If you’re not sure where you want to move your peonies once you plant them, put them on a rolling plant stand to make it easy to move.
- Indoor grown peonies will require natural light with a mix of a grow light. You can use a grow light or a multi-fluorescent light fixture with multiple bulbs to supplement the sun.
- Peonies grow best placed in full sunlight or in a partially shaded spot if it gets a lot of sun during the afternoon in the summer months.
- Some people choose to grow their peonies inside, but the largest growth comes from being outside. If you want to grow them indoors, they should get put right in front of a west or south-facing window with plenty of sun each day.
2. Pick A Container
Peonies are usually on the larger side, and they require plenty of growing space. The single biggest mistake people make with them is to pick a pot that is too small. You’ll need a container that is at least 18 inches deep and wide or wider for them to be happy.
Chances are, you’ll need to transfer it to a bigger pot eventually. They are a large bush plant that can get up to four feet tall, so the root system is large. You’ll need to monitor the growth and transfer it if it seems like it’s root bound. The container requires plenty of drainage holes. If your plant sits in too much water, it can lead to tuber rot which can ruin your plants. Ideally, your container will be heavier to stop it from blowing over in strong winds since peonies can be top-heavy, and look for frost-proof containers like those made out of wood, clay, or heavy-duty plastic.
Since your peonies have to be a bigger container with good drainage, we recommend getting a pot that is a minimum of 12 inches and 10 to 20 gallons. Anything from a fabric pot to half of a whiskey barrel can work, and you can get creative with it.
There are several containers you can choose from for your peonies, but it has to be a bigger container to handle the extensive growth.
Any dolly will work to help move your plants, but this dolly is especially designed to fit plant pots. This makes it a great alternative to getting a planter with wheels. It’s a very convenient option to get for your container peonies if you want to move your plants around a lot or you don’t want to shift it on and off a dolly. Because it’s a solid choice, it’ll work well for plants that are inside and for plants that require a base. However, make sure to pick out the size that suits your container, and you’ll need a pot that is large enough to support your peony.
The self-watering pot is more a “typical” choice, and it comes in a variety of colors to suit all decors and fit into any design. It’s very practical if you’re a busy person or you go on vacation because it’ll water your container peonies for an extended period. However, if you get a lot of rain, this may not be the best choice as it can lead to root rot.
What smart pots lack in beauty they more than make up for in functionality. They were initially developed for the commercial sector, and smart pots have a reputation for providing great aeration that allows the plants to grow a well-developed root system. One drawback of these pots is that they are not the easiest to move when you get a bigger size. If you plan on moving your plants around a lot, you may want to find one with handles.
Whiskey Barrel Planter
The Whiskey barrel planter is a great choice for container peonies because it adds a very unique flair that a lot of bigger pots don’t have. It also already comes with drainage holes so you won’t need to add more on your own. It comes in a range of sizes, so if you plan to put your peonies in it, make sure to get one that holds 10 gallons and up.
3. Fill Your Container with the Proper Soil
Peonies are slightly picky about the soil you put them in, so you’ll want to pay close attention. The soil should be well-draining and loose, but it also needs to be rich and fertile. You can use a combination of 50% topsoil, 25% perlite, and 25% compost. Perlite will help improve drainage, and this will help you get a light and airy soil.
Another option is to get a soil-less potting soil mix and add garden compost to grow your container peonies. Commercial soilless potting medium is available at most big box stores or nurseries. It’s a good idea to add some time-release granular fertilizer when you plant your peonies. Also, each spring when your peonies start to grow again, it’s a good idea to remove half of the potting soil and replace it with new.
4. Plant Your Peonies in a Container
Peonies are tubers, and you can plant them in the fall or spring. Some people claim that fall is best because it gives your plants time to establish before it freezes for the year. Remember that peonies require chill hours to bloom, and they won’t get them if you plant them in the spring. If you choose to plant them in the fall, do so roughly six weeks before the first frost date in your area.
You want to fill your container up most of the way, and you’re only going to add an inch or two on top at most. Put your tubers into the ground with the growth buds or “eyes” facing upward. Cover them with 1.5 to 2 inches of soil over the top. This depth is very important because these are tubers. So, if you want flowers, you need to make sure you don’t plant them too deeply. They’ll fail to bloom and create flowers if you put them too deep. Once you have them in, water them deeply until the water runs out of the bottom.
Caring For Peonies In Containers
Since your peonies are perennials, you need to focus most of your attention on the proper care. Container peonies can easily survive for years, but they will only do so with the best care methods.
Dividing is something you should add to your to-do list once every five or ten years. This is not something you want to do every year or every other year as it will damage the plant. Dividing will delay your next blooming time, but it’s vital to keep your plants healthy and happy. The best way to propagate is to divide the plant’s root clump. Then, you’ll need to replant the divided pieces right away as they can’t stay out of the ground for long.
The best time to divide your plants is in the fall. Before you divide your plant, you’ll need to cut the foliage back to the ground level, and this can be upsetting if it’s large and pretty. Remove the entire plant from the container and remove as much soil as you can. You can use your hands, gently shake it, or spray it with the hose.
Gently spread your plant’s roots into portions with your hands. Each portion should have three to five eyes. Next, take a sharp knife and cut the root clump into sections. Look at each division and cut all of the tiny roots to leave the larger ones. Finish by replanting the division as soon as possible the same way the original plant was planted.
It’s very important that you divide your container peonies every few years to keep the plant healthy and thriving.
Fertilize Once A Year
Peonies are perennial plants, so fertilizing them is one item you don’t want to skip if you want them to continue to grow. Generally speaking, the best time to fertilize them is in the spring before the main growing season starts. Fertilize them once each month while the plants are in bloom, starting before the blooming season begins. When you fertilize them, you can dilute a liquid fertilizer with a 15-20-15 ratio in a gallon of water. Apply it to the potting soil.
Keep Your Container Peonies Wet
You need to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and it’s very easy to cause root rot if you overwater peonies. Once you have established plants, they can handle short dry spells, but you do need to wait until they’re matured. They also dry out much faster than ones you grow in the ground, so you’ll want to check them frequently. You can do so by sticking your finger in the soil.
If the soil feels dry two to three inches down, it’s time to water them. You want to slowly pour water over the soil until it runs out the drainage holes in the base of the container. Don’t pour fast because the soil needs time to absorb the water. You may need to water more than once a day in hot weather.
Frost and freezing temperatures will kill your tubers, so you need to bring them indoors to overwinter. This is one advantage you have with growing container peonies as you can just move them inside and not worry about causing damage. Dormancy may not sound like a lot of fun, but they need two or three months to rest. The preparation for dormancy starts in late summer or early fall. You should slowly cut back on watering your plants and allow the soil to dry out between watering sessions. Even your indoor container peonies will have a dormancy period, and these plants reduce the number of hours of supplemental light they need to match the shorter days during the fall and winter months.
When the plant dies down and starts to lose some leaves, it’s time to bring it inside for the overwintering process. An unheated basement or garage is enough protection from the colder temperatures. You do need to water your overwintering container peonies, but it’s very sparse. Generally, watering them once per week is more than enough for dormant plants. If you water too much, you’ll end up with soggy soil and rotting plants. When spring arrives, you’ll notice new growth. This is when it’s time to move them outside to start growing again.
Prune When Needed
Typically, peonies are classified as a low maintenance plant, but over the winter and fall months, you may need to prune your plants. Pruning is part of how to keep your plant in overall good health. The best place to cut your peony stem is above the healthy bud, and knowing where to cut is an essential part of the pruning process. If you have a diseased stem, cut it all of the way back to the healthy portion. ALos, make sure you dispose of the diseased parts in the trash. Never compost any diseased cuttings or those with a pest infestation because they’ll infect and invade your compost.
Look for places where two branches are crossing and rubbing. This can cause an injury for your plant, so remove the least desirable branch. You don’t want to open wounds as this can lead to entry points for diseases or pests. You should also learn about disbudding. This process is when you remove specific buds to control your flower’s size. Removing side buds and leaving the buds on top of the stems will lead to bigger blooms.
Pruning your peonies is a great way to keep the plant healthy by getting rid of diseased, dying, or damaged branches.
Tips for Growing Container Peonies
Container gardening can be easier to manage if you live in a colder hardiness zone or live in an area that is subject to inclement weather. But, how do you get your container peonies to perform as well as ones that you grow in garden beds? No matter if you’re just short on garden space or if you want to bring this flower indoors, growing container peonies is a simple process. The following tips will help to ensure that you get prolific blooms throughout the summer.
Know Your Planting Zone
We wanted to make sure this was the top tip. Any gardener can technically grow container peonies, but the lower in the zone you live will make it more difficult to overwinter. But, it’s not impossible. Peonies are rates as low as zone three up to zone eight. The general rule for planting any perennial in containers isto plant two zones above. So, if you live in zones seven or eight, your container peonies should overwinter nicely.
For zones three and four, you will need to take steps to ensure that your container peonies survive during the winter months. For zones five and six, you’ll have to give them some protection. There are no hard and fast rules, and it all depends on a few factors, like how cold the winters are or how much thaw and freeze you get. Also, things like container size will determine how successful your container peonies are. Generally speaking, it’s easier to keep container peonies healthy in zones seven and eight.
Location, Location, Location
Peonies need full sun to bloom to their full potential. They will bloom less in partial sun, and they’ll stop blooming altogether in the shade. Pick a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, and a big of afternoon shade will help protect them from the sun’s harshest rays to help keep the flowers intact longer.
Also, pick out a location that is protected from the rain and wind if you can. Peony blossoms are very delicate, and one harsh wind storm or downpour can ruin them. The fun thing about container peonies is that you can easily move them to spaces that are well out of harsh wind, sun, or rain exposure to keep them healthier longer. So, put them in seating areas, or on patios or decks so you can enjoy them in protected spaces.
Peonies look lovely placed on your patio or deck where they get enough sunlight to thrive but have protection for the delicate flowers.
Plan to Overwinter
Peonies are very vulnerable when you grow them in pots. You can put them in an unheated garage to give them some protection. If you have a very large pot and you live in zone six and up, a good layer of mulch may be enough protection. If you live in zones three and four or anywhere that the ground tends to get a lot of thaw and freeze over the winter, you’ll want to overwinter them in the ground.
Since it takes time for your peony to establish and they don’t like you to disturb them once you plant them, the best bet is to sink the whole pot into the ground. Dig a big hole into an empty space in the garden and sink the whole pot into the ground. A big black nursery pot will work well, like you get with a tree. You can insert this liner into a more decorative pot in the summer and then remove it and bury it in the ground.
There is an art to planting container peonies. You have to plant them exactly at the plant’s crown or they won’t bloom. They also don’t like to be moved once they establish themselves, and you can either buy a peony plant or the root.
For a Peony Plant:
Start by digging a big hole in the back of the pot or center of the pot you want to use. Remove the peony from the nursery pot and loosen the soil and root system. Put it in the hole, and only plant it up to the crown. Don’t plant it higher up on the stem, and the line of the crown of your peony should be slightly below the container lip. Don’t allow the crown to sit above the container line, and if it’s mounded above the pot, the water will just run off the plant. If it’s too low below the lip of the pot, it leaves the peony vulnerable to root and crown rot. Water in your newly potted peony well.
For Bare Roots:
Dig a hole and put your bare roots into the soil. Cover the peony “eyes” with an inch of soil at the most. Again, make sure that your covered peony is level with your container lip. You don’t want to mound it above the container or sink it down. The bare roots are best purchased and planted in the fall, and you should water them in well.
Plant for After the Blooms
Peonies will only bloom once in a garden season. This typically happens in the early summer or late spring months, depending on the amount of sunlight. After they finish blooming and you trim away the seed pods, there are a few things you can do. You can enjoy the plant’s lacy foliage, and in a mixed container, it adds texture and structure. Other annuals can take over and flower in this setup, and you may want to add petunias or geraniums under it.
Another choice you have is to have other pots of flowers you rotate out with your container peony. You can’t cut down your peony right after it blooms because the plant still requires energy from the sun so it can grow bigger next season. But, you can move the whole container peony out of your arrangement. Move it to a full sun location and keep watering it. If you have a sprinkler system, putting it in a garden bed so it can get watered is an even better idea. Then, put another container in its place to fill the area in.
Container peonies are large and beautiful plants that require a little more TLC to be happy, but this is 100% doable. If you master the art of growing them, you’ll have showy, pretty flowers all summer long.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.