How to Grow and Care for Peonies

Introduction

Peonies are renowned for their large, colorful, bowl-shaped, flowers and dark green foliage. Once established, these beauties are some of the longest-lived and most reliable garden plants.

About peonies

Peonies originate from Asia and have been grown for thousands of years as ornamental, as well as medicinal, plants. Known as the "King of Plants" in China, peonies have long been used historically in art and literature, as well as past and present ceremonies to symbolize love and passion (red),  friendship (yellow), purity (white), health and prosperity (yellow). They are believed to be useful medicinally as an anti-inflammatory herb, and are renowned for their fragrance.  In the 18th and 19th centuries peonies found their way to Europe and eventually America.

There are two basic types of peony plants: herbaceous and tree. Herbaceous, or garden, peonies (Paeonia hybrids) generally grow 1 to 4 feet tall (depending on the variety) and are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. In areas with freezing winter temperatures, the foliage dies back to the ground each winter, but the crown and roots survive. In mild climates plants can stay green year-round. Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) have woody stems and can grow to 6 feet tall. They are also hardy to zone 3, however they may need winter protection to survive in the coldest climates.

Choosing a Site to Plant and Grow Peonies

In most areas, plant peonies in a full sun location on well-drained soils. Peony roots will rot when planted in poorly drained soil. In hot summer climates, peonies survive best when planted where they receive part shade. The soil pH should be between 6 and 7. Space plants 1 to 5 feet apart, depending on the variety. Locate them away from windy areas but where the air freely flows so it will dry the foliage and help prevent disease. Amend the soil with compost before planting.

Dig a hole 18 inches wide and deep. Plant peonies so the crown (small, colored buds) is only 1 to 2 inches below the soil line. Backfill with soil mixed with compost, and water well. Although you may get a few flowers the first year, it may take 2 to 3 years for a new peony bush to flower fully.

Ongoing Care of Peonies

Once established, peonies require minimal care. Apply a thin layer of compost each spring, followed by a 2-inch layer of mulch to retain moisture and control weeds. Water plants during the summer if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week. Stake tall varieties to keep them upright. After the first killing frost, cut stems back to an inch or two above soil line. The first winter, apply a 4- to 6-inch layer of protective mulch after the ground freezes, to prevent roots from being heaved out of the ground by alternate freezing and thawing. Once your peonies are established, annual winter mulching is not necessary. Remove this protective mulch in the spring.

To keep peony flowers from flopping or falling over, stake or cage the plant early in the season. The green foliage will camouflage the cage while keeping the flowers erect. Cut back and compost foliage after a frost. In mild winter areas, reduce watering and remove foliage in fall - even while it's still green - to induce dormancy. If peonies don't go through a dormant period in winter, they will flower poorly the next year.

To produce fewer but larger flowers, remove side buds, leaving only the center or terminal bud to open. Deadhead spent flowers. When cutting peony flowers for display indoors, cut buds before they unfold. Leave two thirds of the plant stem uncut so it will form buds for next year.

If your peonies are healthy, they should flower for years. However, if you notice a reduction in the amount of flowers, you may need to divide the plant. In fall, dig up the clump and separate it into 3 to 5 sections, each with healthy buds, and replant at the same depth in a full sun location.To produce fewer but larger flowers, remove side buds, leaving only the center or terminal bud to open. Deadhead spent flowers. When cutting peony flowers for display indoors, cut buds before they unfold. Leave two thirds of the plant stem uncut so it will form buds for next year.

One of the chief complaints about peonies is lack of flowering. This may be due to lack of sunlight, too much nitrogen fertilizer, overcrowding, competition from other trees and shrubs, planting crowns too deeply, or disease.

Critical to successful peony culture is to spray shoots for botrytis, a grey mold known to attack peony plants. If you encounter botrytis,  apply a fungicide spray as soon as the red shoots push through the ground in spring. You may want to re-apply especially if your peonies are closely planted and if there is a wet spring which can cause botrytis to flourish. Taking care with this early culture will pay-off with avoiding black spot, bud blast, and other issues with foliage.

Groups of Peonies

Peony flowers are grouped according to flower shape. Single, semi-double, anemone, Japanese, and double flower forms are the most common. Although peonies only bloom for 1 to 2 weeks in early summer, by planting early-, mid-, and late-season varieties, you can extend the bloom time to four to six weeks. Our Peony Database lists the flower type as well as when in the season each variety will bloom.  We have 1895 Peonies in our database! 

There are hundreds of garden and tree peony varieties available. Some popular peony selections to try are:

Variety/ Flower/ Bloom Time/ Special Features

'Fern Leaf', Double red, Early, Fern leaf foliage

'Festiva Maxima', Double white, Early, White flowers splashed with red

'Nippon Beauty', Japanese, red, Late, Red petals fringed with yellow

'Pink Hawaiian Coral', Semi-double, coral, Early to mid-season, Fragrant rose-shaped flowers with yellow stamens

'President Lincoln', Single, red, Mid to late season, Large petals

'Sarah Bernhardt', Double rose, Mid-season, Rose flowers fringed in pink

'Golden Bowl', Tree Single, yellow, Mid-season, Scarlet flares on yellow petals

'Hana Kisoi', Tree Semi-double, pink, Early, Large cherry pink blooms

'Rimpo' Tree Semi-double, red, Early, Deep red bloom and yellow stamens

'Satin Rouge' Tree Double, red, Mid-season to late, Fragrant, old French variety

Special Features of Peonies

Easy care/low maintenance

Fragrant

Good for cut flowers

Some popular Peonies photos:
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