12 Things You Must Know About Growing Peonies

Peony flowers are known for their lush, fragrant blooms and ability to thrive for decades with minimal proper care. Whether the classic herbaceous varieties enchant you, the majestic tree peonies, or the resilient intersectional hybrids, understanding these plants’ specific needs and characteristics is key to cultivating a vibrant and healthy display.

In this article, we’ll delve into twelve essential insights that every gardener should know about growing peonies, offering detailed and practical guidance to help you achieve a spectacular bloom year after year.

1. Choose the Right Variety

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies are divided into three main types: herbaceous, tree, and intersectional (Itoh) peonies.

  • Herbaceous Peonies: These are the classic garden peonies that die back to the ground each winter and reemerge in the spring. They are known for their large, often fragrant blooms and are available in a range of colors, including white, pink, red, and yellow. Popular varieties include ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ ‘Karl Rosenfield,’ and ‘Festiva Maxima.’
  • Tree Peonies: Unlike their herbaceous counterparts, tree peonies have woody stems that remain above ground year-round. They bloom earlier in the season and produce larger flowers. Tree peonies can eventually grow into small shrubs and are generally more expensive and slower-growing. Varieties such as ‘Yachiyo-tsubaki’ and ‘Shimadaijin’ are renowned for their beauty.
  • Intersectional (Itoh) Peonies: These are hybrids between herbaceous and tree peonies, combining the best traits of both. They have large, often fragrant flowers, sturdy stems, and a longer blooming period. Itoh peonies, such as ‘Bartzella’ and ‘Cora Louise,’ are prized for their unique colors and vigorous growth.

2. Ideal Planting Time

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

The optimal time to plant peonies is in the fall, about six weeks before the first hard frost. This timing allows the roots to establish themselves before the winter freeze. Planting in the spring is possible, but the plants may not perform as well initially and could take longer to establish. When planting in the fall, the cooler temperatures and increased moisture levels help the peonies settle in and prepare for the next growing season.

3. Proper Planting Depth

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies are particular about their planting depth. For bare-root peonies, dig a hole wide enough to spread the roots out comfortably. Place the root so that the eyes (buds) are positioned 1-2 inches below the soil surface. Planting too deeply can result in poor flowering or no blooms at all. If planting from a container, ensure the crown (where the stems meet the roots) is level with the soil surface. Backfill the hole gently, firming the soil around the roots, and water thoroughly to eliminate air pockets.

4. Select the Right Location

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies thrive in full sun, requiring at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day for optimal blooming. In hotter climates, they can benefit from some afternoon shade to prevent the flowers from fading. Peonies prefer well-drained soil, as waterlogged conditions can lead to root rot and other fungal diseases. The chosen site should have good air circulation to reduce the risk of disease and ensure the plants remain healthy. Avoid planting peonies near large trees or shrubs that could compete for nutrients and water.

5. Soil Preparation

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Proper soil preparation is key to the long-term success of your peonies. Start by testing your soil’s pH; peonies prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH 6.0-7.0). Amend the soil if necessary to achieve the ideal pH. Work organic matter such as compost, aged manure, or leaf mold into the planting area to improve soil structure, fertility, and drainage. Loosen the soil to a depth of about 12-18 inches to encourage deep root growth. Adding a balanced, slow-release fertilizer at planting time can give your peonies a good start.

6. Spacing and Support

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Proper spacing is important to ensure good air circulation and reduce the risk of disease. Space peonies about 3-4 feet apart to allow for mature growth. Peonies can reach up to 3 feet in height and width, so give them plenty of room to expand. As peonies grow, their large, heavy blooms may need support to prevent them from flopping over, especially during rain. Use peony rings, stakes, or grow-through supports to keep the plants upright. Place supports early in the growing season to avoid damaging the emerging shoots.

7. Watering Requirements

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Consistent moisture is essential for peonies, especially during their first year as they establish their root system. Water deeply and regularly, ensuring the soil is moist but not waterlogged. Mulching around the base of the plants helps retain soil moisture and suppress weeds. In established plants, water during dry spells, particularly in the summer when peonies can experience drought stress. A deep watering once a week is generally sufficient, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings.

8. Fertilizing Needs

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies benefit from regular feeding to maintain their vigor and bloom production. Apply a balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 formula, in early spring as new growth emerges. A second application after blooming can help the plants recover and prepare for the next season. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, which can promote excessive foliage at the expense of flowers. Organic options, such as compost or well-rotted manure, can also provide essential nutrients without the risk of over-fertilizing.

9. Pruning and Deadheading

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Pruning and deadheading are important for maintaining the health and appearance of your peonies. After the flowers have faded, remove spent blooms to prevent the plant from wasting energy on seed production. For herbaceous peonies, cut back the foliage to the ground in the fall after it has died back naturally. This helps reduce the risk of disease and pest problems. For tree peonies, remove any dead or damaged wood in early spring before new growth begins. Pruning for shape and size can be done at the same time, but be cautious not to remove too much growth, as tree peonies bloom on old wood.

10. Disease and Pest Management

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies are relatively hardy, but they can be susceptible to fungal diseases such as botrytis blight and powdery mildew. Good cultural practices, such as proper spacing, watering at the base of the plants, and ensuring good air circulation, can help prevent these issues. If disease does occur, remove and destroy affected plant parts to prevent the spread. Common pests include aphids, thrips, and scale insects. Regular monitoring and early intervention with insecticidal soap or neem oil can keep these pests in check.

11. Winter Care

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies are hardy perennials that can withstand cold winters, but some care can help them thrive. In colder climates, apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plants after the ground freezes to insulate the roots. Avoid heavy mulching directly over the crowns, as this can lead to rot. Remove the mulch in early spring as new growth begins. For tree peonies, protect the woody stems from harsh winter winds by wrapping them in burlap or using windbreaks. Proper winter care ensures that your peonies emerge healthy and vigorous in the spring.

12. Patience and Longevity

Peonies.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Peonies are known for their longevity and can live for decades with minimal care. However, they may take a few years to reach their full blooming potential. Patience is key, as mature plants will reward you with a stunning display of flowers each year. Once established, peonies require little maintenance and can thrive in the same spot for many years. They are a true investment in your garden, providing beauty and enjoyment for generations.

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Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

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