Everything You Need to About Planting & Growing Peonies

By: Andrea Pisani Babich Gardening guide, How to

Peonies make fabulous additions to gardens and hedges for their extravagant, fragrant blooms and their lush, glossy, green foliage. With proper placement and soil care, these fragrant perennials will delight you for many years. In fact, many plants continue to produce their vibrant display for 100 years or more with very little care. Because of their beauty and longevity, healthy peonies symbolize good fortune and happy marriage.

Types of peonies

There are three basic types of peonies. While all types produce abundant, fragrant blooms in a variety of colors and shapes, each has slightly different needs and appearances.

Herbaceous peonies

Herbaceous peonies are bush-like plants with thin and limber stems that often bend under the weight of their massive, plentiful flowers. They grow to about four feet high, and mature plants can produce more than 40  large blossoms at a time. Their foliage dies after the first frost.

Tree peonies

Tree peonies are woody shrubs that can grow to ten feet tall. Their flowers are much larger than the herbaceous variety and display proudly on their sturdy, woody branches. They lose leaves in the fall, but their branches remain strong and intact throughout the winter.

Itoh peonies

Itoh peonies, also called intersectional peonies, are hybrids of the herbaceous and tree varieties and share characteristics of each. Like tree peonies, they produce many large, long-lasting blossoms and don’t require staking. Like their herbaceous parents, Itohs should be cut down to four to six inches in the fall—encouraging new stems to emerge in the spring.

If you live anywhere in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9 (that’s a band that runs across the north side of the southeastern United States), you can enjoy many years of at least one type of these relatively carefree and prolific flower producers.

When to plant peonies

Peonies should be planted in the fall from late September into October for most parts of the country, before the first hard frost. You can plant them even later in warmer climates. Peonies that have been raised in a container can be planted as early as late spring or early summer.

Once your peony plant is established—two to three years after planting—you’ll begin to see the dormant plants emerge after the average daytime temperature is 65ºF to 70ºF. You can expect flowers to start blooming in April and continue through May and June. Each bloom lasts one week to ten days.

How to plant peonies

With all that peonies have to offer, it’s worth the time and effort to get them planted and placed properly the first time. Here’s what you’ll need to get started.

Materials

  • A shovel
  • Organic matter such as compost, bonemeal, or peat moss
  • Well-draining soil with a neutral pH (if it's too acidic, add a cup of lime)
  • Bareroot peony with at least three to five eyes or buds and roots that are firmly attached to the crown
  • Peony stake or rings
Sunlight and placement

Choose a sunny location. Peonies love full sun but can do with as little as six hours of full sun per day. Dappled sunlight during the hottest part of the day will ensure that the flowers don’t wither.

Allow at least three to five feet of space between other plants, walls, and fences to allow for sufficient air circulation, and keep the area well weeded to eliminate competition.

Planting

To ensure that you grow happy and healthy peonies that will produce lots of gorgeous blooms for many years to come, follow these steps.

  1. Start with a large hole about two feet deep and two feet wide.
  2. Unless your soil is already very sandy, spread a layer of sand or gravel for drainage to prevent roots from rotting.
  3. Mix the soil you dug from the hole with compost, bonemeal, peat moss or a combination of these, especially if your soil is very sandy or has a high clay content. Use this mixture to create a firmly packed mound that reaches almost the height of the surrounding soil surface.
  4. Spread the roots around the peak of the mound, making sure that the eyes (the pale pink buds that sprout from the tuberous roots) are no deeper than two inches below the soil surface.
  5. Fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Be careful not to let the root settle so much that the eyes sink below two inches deep.
  6. Water thoroughly.

Prepare support for the large flowers on herbaceous peonies with a peony stake. Insert it into the soil over the plant when it is about six inches high. The plant will grow through the stake as it gets taller, and your blooms will stand proud throughout the season.

Caring for your peonies

A few simple steps will help keep your peonies thriving for years to come.

  1. Deadhead the blossoms as soon as they begin to fade.
  2. Cut foliage on herbaceous peonies to the ground in the fall to prevent winter diseases.
  3. Loosely mulch with pine straw or shredded bark only if winter temperatures are severe the first year after planting. Push mulch aside in the spring.

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