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

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.

Pink peony blooms in bouquet

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

peony bouquet in the garden and how to grow it

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.

peony charlies white early season bloomer

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!

peony Kansas is a mid season blooming variety

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

correct planting depth is critical for peonies to bloom

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!  :) 

pink peony in bloom

Peony Care

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.

raindrops on peony Benjamin Franklin

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

peony bud with ants providing a crucial service 

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.

peony pink Hawaiian coral bloom

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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  • Kathleen McCarthy