How to Grow a Peony
Peonies are beautiful herbaceous perennial plants which can grow from approximately 18 inches tall to as high as 5 feet tall. Those that are identified as "tree" peonies grow from 5 feet tall up to 10 feet tall.
What is very appealing about peonies is the large, layered flower petals, which with some varieties can grow wider than a hand. Flower colors are in shades of red, pink, yellow and white.
An amazing attribute of the peony is the length of years it can survive. Some growers say they can last as long as 100 years.
That could possibly be true. Think of the time you drive past old farm houses or visit a cemetery. A large number of those blossoms you see which have obviously been around a long time with little or no care, are peonies.
Some of these gorgeous flowers include fantastic fragrances, making them even more compelling for the gardener or landscaper. That also makes them a fantastic choice for cut flowers. I grew up with these wonderful flowers in the yard, and they're among my favorites.
For best blooming results from a peony they need a cooler climate because of the need for a period of coolness in the winter months. They'll grow and bloom in other climates, but not nearly as well. So manage your expectations if they are a must-have flower for you.
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Peonies don't transplant well and are a perennial, so extra care needs to be taken before you plant them as to where you're going to place them.
Once they're in the ground and growing, you just about need to keep them there for the remainder of the life of the plant. They can be successfully transplanted, but it's difficult to to, and fail more often than succeed.
It would be better to take roots in the fall or buy new plants and prepare them for another desired spot than to attempt to transplant them.
Best Soil for Peonies
As for what type of soil to plant peonies in, they are hardy and grow well, so will perform strongly in most soil types. So if you're limited in relationship to soil quality, boost your soil a little with compost and plant, and then place the peony in the ground.
Like any other plant though, the better the soil, including drainage, the better results you'll get.
A neutral pH of around 7.0 works well for them. You can get away with a slight acidic soil if you need to, but only a little.
Also plant your peonies away from competitive flowers or plants, as they won't perform as well because of root and nutrient competition. There will be less flowers, and those you get will be smaller in size.
Peonies and the Sun
When taking into account where to plant your peonies as it relates to the sun, they love full exposure, although if there is a little shade in the hotter parts of the day, specifically in the afternoon, they should do okay, as long as it's not too much shade.
Planting Herbaceous Peonies
When to Plant Peonies
Unless you're putting your first peonies in the ground, the best time to plant them is in the fall for the quickest and best results.
When I say unless you're putting your first peonies in the ground, I mean that your first plants are bought at the store in the early part of the year and you have to plant them in early spring.
If you already have some peonies you would have stock from the prior year and would plant them in the early part of the fall season, which is optimal for them.
This gives them time to establish themselves before the cold winter weather arrives.
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How to Plant Peonies
Once you have the right location for your peonies, the next step will be to put them in the ground.
If the peony roots you have appear a little dry when you inspect them, soak them in a bucket of water overnight before placing them in the ground.
The first thing to consider is the spacing you will need between plants. When a peony reaches maturity, it can spread out to about 3 feet in diameter, so take that into consideration when planting. Give them some breathing room.
A good rule of thumb for planting depth and width for peonies is about 18 inches deep and 18 inches wide.
What we've done in the past is place some compost or organic matter in the bottom of the hole, approximately 4 inches deep. We also add some fertilizer on top of that at the time to give it even more of a boost.
Now fill up your hole about halfway to the top with soil and more mix. You do this to create a better soil, and also to be sure your roots don't immediately come into contact with the fertilizer, which would burn them. This is why you shouldn't add fertilizer to this second layer.
Now place your root division in place with the eyes of the root facing the sky. When you have that in place, spread the roots out from the main part in an even fashion.
Concerning the eyes of the root, you don't want them lower than a couple of inches from the top of the surface of the ground when you complete your planting, as that will cause the peony not to bloom.
Purple Tulip Peony
Planting Potted Peonies
If you've decided to plant peonies from pots, how you plant them is to dig your hole to a depth equal to the same level of the peony in the pot.
Simply place the plant in the hole and water where the roots of the plant are in a thorough manner. Fill in the hole and water again.
When transplanting from a pot, it's unlikely you'll see peony flowers before the second year. The exception is if you get them in the ground early enough in the spring, you may get some flowering.
Peony Planting Strategy
Peonies, while beautiful, only bloom for a short time, so if you want the most benefit from the plant, put several varieties that bloom at different times of the year to get color throughout the spring and summer months.
There are several things to take into consideration when managing your expectations for when a peony will reach full bloom.
All of the factors mentioned above, included the soil quality, amount of sun and drainage all play a factor, as does whether there is much competition for the plants.
The better all of these are managed the quicker and fuller the flowers will emerge for you.
If there are limitations that can't be overcome, and you've done the best you can, it may take up to 3 or 4 seasons before a flower is seen on the plant if conditions are adverse.
One final factor in regard to the length of time it takes to see a peony flower on your plant, is the variety you buy itself.
Either way, peonies do take there time a little concerning flower production, but it is definitely worth the wait.
Planting Your Bareroot Peony
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Feeding Your Peonies
If you can, feed your peonies with compost or rotted manure. The trick here is to place this type of fertilizer a little away from the plant and around it. Don't place it directly against the crown of the peony.
Another option if you don't have access to natural fertilizers, is you can get a granular type which has a stronger concentration of phosphate and potassium.
Peonies are heavy feeders, and even in good soil they'll need an occasional boost for best performance.
If you don't want to deal too much with maintaining your peonies, the choice there would be to plant single-flowering varieties in your garden or yard, rather than double-flowering types.
Those that are double hybrids need to be staked.
Also keep in mind how quickly peonies emerge from the ground in the spring, so be sure to have your stakes in place, as well as add hoops or whatever other supports you're going to incorporate into your staking, as once they begin to grow, it may be too late for you.
Some peonies are so robust and large that they require heftier staking to keep them from dropping. In that case something like bamboo works very well.
Stick about four of them in the ground surrounding the plant and then wrap or weave twine around the stems and leaves and the bamboo stakes. Think of using a type of criss-cross pattern, which creates the look of a net.
For the longer stems they will usually not respond to staking, so it's best, assuming you're using them for cut flowers, to just snip them and place them in a vase to enjoy.
After Flowering Care
Once the peony flower is done, you can then remove the entire stem of the flower. Reach down deep and make the cut in a way that it remains hidden, as the foliage of peonies continue to look great until the growing season is complete.
Flowers on peonies only bloom once annually, so you can use that as the measure for care once it has stopped blooming. The purpose is to keep the rest of the plant looking nice for the rest of the year.
Deadheading also allows the excess energy of the plant to be transferred to the root system.
Fall and Winter Peony Care
Care for peonies after the first frost is fairly minimal. Once the leaves are killed by the frost, simply cut them off and remove them from the area.
The reason for this is to prevent infection from permeating the plant because of the possible fungal pathogen dangers which may reside in the old foliage.
For those living in frigid climates, placing a winter mulch over the plants will help them, especially if you get one of those years with little snow but very cold weather. This prepares the peony for that needed chilling that helps them perform at their best.
Because subtropical climates don't provide the chilling period, peonies don't do as well there.
Plant Care & Gardening : How to Transplant Peonies
Peonies and Insects
While peonies are resistant to most insects, occasionally you can have some problems.
Let's start off by saying that ants, while they can be a nuisance, don't cause damage to peonies. Where they are bothersome is if you want to take a cutting of a flower and they're all over it.
A solution to that is to get some water in a bucket and dip the cut flower into it and slowly move it around until the ants are off of it.
There are a couple of other insects that could trouble peonies, including the pesky thrip, flea beetles, and rose chafer beetles.
Thrips are best taken care of before you plant the root in the ground, by swishing the roots in a bag of Sevin or some other type of dust. Thrips like to suck on the plants which result in them turning a brown color, and ultimately killing them.
These and the beetles mentioned can be controlled by insecticidal soap as well, with the rose chafer beetle needing a product with neem in if if you prefer organic control methods.
Peonies are also very resistant to squirrels, deer and rabbits.
Standing water, or too much water, is the greatest enemy of peonies, and the best way to control that is in being sure you plant them in soil that drains well.
That also helps keep fungus disease from negatively impacting them. Keep the areas around the plants clean of debris as well; anything that holds moisture could create a problem.
Peonies are also tolerant to leaf diseases, but are more vulnerable in the cooler spring months where high humidity and cool temperatures could damage the plant.
If you see you plant under stress in times like those, than the use of a stem or leaf fungi could be called for.
How to Divide a Peony
Unless there have been changing circumstances surrounding where you originally planted you peonies, there is usually no need to divide them.
But if the environment has changed, such as overcrowding, trees close by which are providing too much shade, or other shrubs or trees that many have encroached upon the root system of the peony, they may be a need for dividing the plant.
Symptoms of this are usually recognized by a decline in the number of flowers.
When to Divide Peonies
Dividing a peony plant is best done in the fall, or at earliest, the latter part of the summer. This is because they have either started the dormancy process, or have already went dormant, which makes the conditions better for a successful division of the peony.
You can identify dormancy by the plant leaves quickly losing their green color.
How to Dig Out Root
When digging in order to lift out the entire plant in order to get access to the roots, don't push or pry your shovel (a spade works best) into the dirt and press it inwards toward the root. That will damage them.
Instead, press straight down around the plant until the root ball is completely loose. From there you should be able to just roll it out of the hole.
The Crown and the Storage Roots
There are two vital parts of a peony that must be kept from being damaged if you don't want to destroy the plant in a way that it takes years to recover.
You have the crown and the food storage roots. Most of us who have grown peonies and dug them up for any reason know what the crown is, as it is the underground stem of the plant, and is usually plump from storing food. It also has the big buds which will produce the shoots next season.
Less known or understood is the food storage roots, which are usually what can be damaged by the unsuspecting gardener.
The key there is to be sure when you're digging to retain a minimum of 6 inches in length to the storage roots, and up to 10 inches, or somewhere close to that length.
It's not that you may slightly cut some of the roots that is harmful to the plant, but that you may cut them too short while you're digging.
If you place the entire peony back in the ground after cutting the storage root too short, it'll take many years before the plant resumes its normal flowering pattern, if it ever does.
Roots Out of the Ground
Once you get the roots successfully out of the ground, the next step is to get rid of the soil in order to see where you can make the divisions.
At this time you could also wash it and check for any damage or parasites.
When you make your cuts, be sure the division has from three to five eyes, along with good roots. Replant them as quickly as you're able to.
How to Grow Peonies from Seeds
From the beginning of looking into growing peonies from seed, it must be understood that it involves a commitment of many years.
To start from seed, estimates are that it will take from five to seven years before the first mature flower is seen.
Secondly, there is no way to know what the finished plant and flower will look like, at least with the most popular cultivars, as they don't grow exact when being started from seed.
Finally, if you're wanting to reproduce your favorite double peonies, it's almost impossible because they are, for the most part infertile, not producing seeds or pollen.
Peony Seed Process
If you still want to give it a go, here are the steps to take:
When you discover some seed pods on your peonies, don't take them off, but allow them to ripen while on the plant.
You will know this when they start to harden as it opens up. You'll be able to visually see the seeds, which at that time they can be collected.
Germinating Peony Seeds
In order to successfully germinate peony seeds, they need at least several weeks of moisture and warmth. Once you see the root start to develop, they will then need a cold period of close to 10 weeks to 12 weeks.
At that point you can follow the prior instructions for planting and caring for peonies.
Peonies are an extraordinary addition to any landscaping or garden scheme, and the large variety and beautiful flowers make them a delight to see and place in a vase to enhance a home.
With a little thought and planning, along with some tender loving care, they can be part of our lives for decades because of how long they live. What more could a flower gardener ask for?