Peonies are prized for their large, showy flowers. A popular cut flower, they are also an attractive plant in a sunny flower bed or container garden.
While the flowers may be relatively short lived, the foliage lasts throughout the summer months. In a mixed border, this provides an attractive background to showcase your other plants. As well as setting off flower beds, peonies are also a great option to line a walkway or path.
Fabulously showy flowers, the peony is a popular cut plant. It is also surprisingly easy to grow.
Peonies do best in USDA zones 2 to 8. Gardeners in other zones can also try growing peony plants outside. However the process will be more difficult and more prone to failure. Instead try growing the plants in containers undercover.
This guide takes you through everything you need to know about planting and caring for peonies.
Varieties of Peony
There are a number of different cultivars of peony to choose from. For a really wide range of options try visiting a specialist nursery.
Take the time to research the growing preferences of any plant before you purchase. This helps you to better care for the plant as well as helping you to avoid plants that are not compatible with your growing situation.
The peony flower lasts for about a week. To extend your display, plant a combination of early, mid-season and late blooming varieties. This allows you to enjoy peony flowers in your garden for an extended period.
The variety Early Scot is, as the name suggests, an early flowering variety producing attractive, single red flowers. Firelight is another early flowering cultivar, displaying attractive pale-pink single flowers.
For midseason color, Karl Rosenfield produces large crimson flowers. Another midseason favorite, Norma Volz is prized for its large white double flowers. The cultivar Jean Ericksen is a prolific midseason bloomer. Its deep red flowers are particularly attractive to hummingbirds.
Peony flowers come in a range of shapes, sizes and colors. Visiting specialist nurseries or growing from seed allows you access to a wider range of varieties.
Late season flowers can be reliably provided by the pink blooms of Rare Flower or the white camellia-like Elsa Sass.
Some varieties, such as Festiva Maxima also have attractive rose-like fragrances. Others may have a more lemon scented aroma while some won’t smell at all.
Bowl of Beauty is a particularly attractive anemone peony. Unlike other cultivars, the stems of this plant withstand rainfall pleasingly well. The flowers remain upright and pleasing, instead of falling down to the ground.
The heirloom variety Reine Hortense dates from 1857. Its primary attraction is the flowers’ habit of changing color as they mature.
Joker produces giant carnation-like double flowers that compliment cottage garden favorites such as dianthus and foxglove.
Most herbaceous varieties reach from 1 to 3 ft in height. They have a similar spread. Ensure you have enough room in your flower bed, or a large enough container, before purchasing.
The tree peony is similar in appearance to the herbaceous peony. However it grows much taller. In ideal conditions they can reach up to 6 ft. In cooler zones these plants can reach a height of about 4 ft.
Tree peonies are larger than other varieties, requiring more room in your garden. Remember as well as the visible spread of the plant, the root system will be equally as large and needs room to grow.
How to Grow Peonies
As long as they are planted correctly, in a favorable position, peony plants require little regular maintenance.
The best time to plant peonies is in the fall. Gardeners in USDA zones 7 and 8 can continue planting during the early part of winter. Aim to have you peonies in place about 6 weeks before the ground freezes.
You can also plant peonies in the spring. However, spring planted peony plants tend to struggle for at least the first year, especially when compared to those planted in the fall.
The fall is also the best time to divide or move mature plants. Try to do this as little as possible, peony plants dislike being disturbed.
In general peonies love sunny positions. A full sun position where the plant can receive at least half a day of sunlight every day is preferable. However, a little midday shade can encourage flowers to last longer.
Your chosen position should also provide some shelter from strong winds. When in flower peonies can be top heavy. If the plants aren’t staked they can topple over or snap.
Try to choose a position away from other trees and large shrubs. Peony plants dislike having to compete for food, moisture and light. The soil should be fertile, rich in humus and well-draining. A pH neutral profile is also desirable. If you are unsure what type of soil you have why not invest in a soil testing kit?
Before planting work in organic matter, such as homemade compost. This gives the plants an extra boost, helping them to settle in and begin growing. Working over the soil also helps to loosen the soil improving drainage.
How to Plant
Peony plants are usually sold as bare-root tubers. Each tuber will have 3 to 5 eyes or buds on it. Tubers are usually a division of a mature plant, at least 3 years old. Once your peonies reach this age you can make your own divisions. As well as increasing the amount of peonies you have this also helps to keep the plants healthy. I will explain how to divide peonies later.
To plant the tuber dig a large hole at least 2 ft deep and 2 ft wide. Work some organic matter such as homemade compost into the soil. Placing one cup of bonemeal in the hole also benefits the plants. These amendments are particularly helpful if you are growing in a sandy or heavy soil.
Build up a mound or cone of amended soil in the center of the hole. Place the tuber root on the mound so that the eyes are facing upwards.
Don’t plant the tuber too deeply. The top of the root should be about 2 inches below the top of the soil surface.
When you are happy with the position of the tuber, backfill the hole. As you do this ensure that as the soil settles it doesn’t force the tuber too far below the soil level. Gently tamp the soil down and water well.
Space your peony plants 3 to 4 ft apart. This allows air to freely circulate between the plants, keeping the foliage healthy and disease free.
Planting in Containers
Peonies can also be grown in pots as part of a container garden.
Plants in containers need more care and attention than those planted in flower beds. Choose a large container with lots of drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the container with fresh, general purpose compost. Plant the peonies tubers as you would if you were planting in the ground.
Plants growing in containers require more frequent watering than those in the ground. For a low maintenance option, try planting in self-watering pots.
During the fall move the containers to a sheltered position to protect from winter frosts.
Caring for Peonies
Peonies do best in sunny positions in well-draining, organic soil. As long as you can provide this peony care is largely easy and trouble free. Taller and double varieties should have some form of support such as a stake or trellis.
Peonies take time to develop. Some varieties may take a few years before they are fully settled and happily flourishing. Thriving on benign neglect, try not to disturb your peony plants unless it is absolutely necessary.
Water and Fertilizer
Water regularly, when the soil is dry. Don’t overwater.
Water plants in the soil once a week, if it isn’t raining. Plants growing in containers may require more frequent watering.
Reduce or cease watering once fall begins and the plants become dormant.
If you are concerned about the amount of water your plants require, why not try harvesting your own rainwater? Re-using rainwater on your plants is an eco-friendly way to keep your garden hydrated without running up a large water bill.
Peonies in rich soil need only infrequent fertilizing. If the soil is rich enough and a compost mulch is applied in the winter then there is no need to apply any other form of fertilizer.
Despite their showy appearance, peonies thrive on benign neglect. This makes them the ideal low maintenance plant.
In poor soil peonies appreciate an application of bone meal fertilizer in early summer. Apply after the plants have finished flowering for the year. Compost or well-rotted manure can also be added to the soil around the plants.
Be careful not to over fertilize your peonies. Don’t feed more than a few times every year.
Deadheading and Pruning
Deadhead flowers as they begin to fade. You can also cut the spent flower stem down to just below a strong leaf so that it doesn’t protrude from the foliage. This helps to keep the appearance of the plant neat.
With a garden scissors remove any damaged or diseased foliage. This helps to keep the plant healthy.
In the winter or late fall cut the foliage down to the ground. This prevents any overwintering diseases.
For the first winter mulch loosely with shredded bark or an organic mulch. Remove any mulch that hasn’t decomposed in the spring.
Once established plants in warmer zones won’t need winter protection after the first year. Most varieties can survive average zone 2 winters with little trouble.
In colder zones, or if harsh winters are predicted a thin layer of mulch can be applied every fall. Don’t lay too thick a layer. This can smother the plants.
Alternatively cover the plants with a fleece or protective cover, such as the Gardaner Plant Cover.
Remove the mulch in the spring as temperatures rise.
How to Make Divisions
After reaching maturity, about 3 years of age, peonies need to be divided every couple of years. The most obvious sign that plants need to be divided is the flowering habit will not be as abundant as in previous years.
The best time to divide plants is in the fall. Wait until the foliage has died back before making any divisions.
To divide the plants carefully dig up the tuber. Older plants have a large root system. Try to dig up as much of the root system as possible. Don’t worry about any roots that snap in half. This shouldn’t cause the plant too much harm.
If you are moving the peony, try to remove as much of the root system as you can. Varieties with bulbous root systems can regrow if some of the root is left in the ground.
With a hose pipe wash away any residual soil from the tuber and roots. This helps you to see the eyes of the tuber. From these eyes next year’s leaf shoots emerge. Try to identify eyes with lots of roots attached. When you make the division aim to have at least 3 eyes on each separated piece of tuber. The more eyes on each piece the better.
To make the cutting place the tip of a sharp, clean knife or secateurs into the top of the plant and carefully slice.
Replant the divided bulbs so that the eyes are about an inch deep. Space the divisions at least 3 ft apart.
Companion planting is the practice of planting plants with similar needs and preferences together. This helps to encourage flowering and productivity. It also helps to prevent disease.
Peonies are pleasingly easy going plants. They work well and compliment a number of other flowers. Peonies look particularly attractive when planted in mixed borders alongside irises, roses, columbines, forget-me-nots and violets.
Common Pests and Diseases
If planted and cared for correctly peonies are largely problem free. They are also left alone by most pests and insects.
Ants can often be seen on the stems and flowers of peony plants. This is not a problem. They are not harming the plant, they are just looking for the nectar produced by the flowers.
Ants also target scale insects and aphids, so are helping to keep your plants healthy. If your plants do become the target of aphids or other pests an application of neem oil or soapy water removes most infestations.
Ants are a common sight on peony flowers. Naturally drawn to the nectar rich flowers they also target pests such as aphids, helping to keep your peonies happy and healthy.
Peonies can be affected by various fungal diseases including leaf blotch and botrytis blight.
Botrytis is a particularly nasty blight. Present in most soils, the blight only becomes active during unusually cold or wet periods. It can also occur if there are other affected plants nearby.
Botrytis blight causes stems and buds to blacken. It can also cause the base of the plant to rot. The majority of these diseases will affect the stem, foliage and flower of the plant. If your plants are affected dig them up and dispose of them safely. Do not place affected plants on the compost heap. This can help the disease to spread to other areas of your garden.
Peonies don’t always flower in the first year. They take time to mature. If the plants do flower it may not be as abundant as you expect. If your peony fails to flower in consecutive years it is probably a sign that the plant is not receiving enough light.
Producing the showiest of flowers, the peony is a great way to add color and interest to your flower garden. They also make a great cut flower. However the short lived flowers fade even more quickly if cut.
Peonies are pleasingly easy to care for. Flowering from late spring until early summer while the flowers may be short lived the foliage provides a rich green blanket that lasts until the fall.
Peony flowers can also be cut and placed in a vase. Cut long stems when the flower buds are still tight.
As fall arrives, the green foliage of the peony takes on a purplish-red or gold shade. While the flowers may not last as long as other plants, the aristocratic peony continues to provide your garden with color and interest long after other plants have faded.