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Secrets to Spectacular Blooms: A Gardener’s Guide to Growing Peonies

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gardener's guide to growing peonies

Peony is a favorite flower for many gardeners and florists. Peonies are beautiful and enduring flowers, and we love them for their rich, full-petalled globes. How do you get those large, lush blooms? Our comprehensive gardener’s guide to growing peonies will help you attain those gorgeous blossoms.

Peonies bloom mostly in spring, but you can find them in stores as early as late March. In the Mid-Atlantic region you can expect blooms in May through early summer. Different varieties will bloom at different times in spring, and they tend to have a short blooming season. But what a show! The sight of those full beautiful blossoms in spring is part of nature’s remedy for the winter doldrums, a balm for the gardener’s soul.

A Gardener’s Guide to Growing Peonies

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There are different kinds of peonies – herbaceous, tree, and hybrids of both. Herbaceous peonies are the most common and most cold hardy. If you plant them right from the beginning, each type of peony can bloom for over 50 years. But planting them correctly is crucial. If not, they won’t bloom. They are relatively low maintenance once established.

Knowing Peony Growing Habits

This gardener’s guide to growing peonies wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a very important first step. Before planting any plant in your garden, it’s very helpful to first learn about the particular growing habits of the plant.

A healthy peony will often grow to 3 feet in diameter, some cultivars will reach 4 or even feet. Be sure to research the variety you choose to make sure it will fit well at maturity into the space you have, making sure to space them accordingly when you plant.

When peonies have enough space and ideal growing conditions, they will happily clump and grow to a height of 2 to 3 feet. If planting them in a flower bed with other plants or flowers, make sure to plant them in front of taller plants, so they can get the needed sunlight. With any perennial it is wise to plant for the mature size. If you need to fill in some space while they grow, some low growing annuals are perfect.

Another important thing to know about peonies is that they have a long taproot. This helps them dig up minerals and water that are down below the topsoil. This is why peonies don’t tend to do well in pots, at least not for the long haul.

Peony Planting tips

Taking care to plant peonies correctly will ensure that you don’t have problems to solve later. There are a few simple but important steps to get a strong, full flowering plant. If you have older peonies that aren’t flowering, it might be because they were planted the wrong way. Fixing this might take time, but it’s worth it for those lovely blooms.

Where to Plant Peonies

gardener's guide to growing peonies

Herbaceous peonies love the sun! Give them at least six hours a day, and more is even better. Tree peonies will be happy with dappled sunlight. Since peonies want to grow into a large lovely bush with huge luscious flowers, make sure they are planted in a place that is protected from strong winds. Planting other protective shrubs or tall grasses on the windward side is a good protective measure.

When to Plant Peony Bulbs

Fall is the perfect time to plant bare-root peonies, as is true for most perennials. The soil is still warm in the fall so their roots can get established without the heat of the summer to stress them. This will mean you should plant them six weeks before the first expected frost. With established roots, they can safely go dormant in the winter. When they wake up in early spring, they are ready to grow!

Most nurseries sell potted peonies in the spring. It’s perfectly fine to plant them in the spring. If they are not established, you may not see blooms the first year. And often, the first year blooms are not as full and rich in color as they will be. Don’t be disappointed, they will show off properly the second year.

Best Soil for Peonies

Peonies don’t like wet feet, especially in the winter. Plant them in rich, well-draining soil. You can mix in some sand or grit as well as organic matter, compost, when planting to help with more clayish soil. It is best to plant them a little higher up to assure good drainage.

Planting Depth

Peonies are very sensitive to planting depth. They need to be covered, but also close enough to the warmth of the sun to get the signal that it’s time to grow. Make sure to plant them exactly at their crown, where the stem meets the root. No deeper. No higher, or they won’t grow properly and won’t bloom.

Dig the hole wide enough to accommodate the roots of each plant. I could say 4 inches deep and 6 inches wide as a general rule, but it really depends on each bare root plant that you have. If you are planting a container-grown peony, plant at the level of the soil in the pot.

If you have established peonies that aren’t blooming, they may need to be adjusted. You can scrape back some soil from the crown, if they are planted high enough. Only replant them if they are sunken down into the garden bed, although this isn’t ideal; they do not like being moved. Remember the long tap root if you dig them up. It may take an extra season for them to bloom, but it will be worth it.

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Peony Care Guide

Food and Water

Feed peonies in the fall with a layer of rich compost on top. This will encourage a strong flowering season the following spring. Many gardeners use a high potash, slow-releasing fertilizer in the fall, like bonemeal, for example. Potash is helpful in flower production.

Newly planted peonies will need a little more care to get established. They will need regular watering during the first season. But don’t overdo it with watering or with fertilizer. Using organic, regenerative gardening methods is always the best practice.

Once established, peonies are a great choice for a conservation-minded gardener. They thrive without a lot of attention, including watering. Like every plant, consisted watering is important. Peonies may need a slow, deep watering periodically to get to the taproot if the whether is dry for long spells.

Pruning Techniques

Considering the growth habit of the plant before you prune the plant it is important. Pruning peonies is not at all complex, and depends on the look you are going for. It may not really be necessary.

Unless…

If you are growing peonies for display or for a show, then you probably want the largest flowers possible. In this case you will want to cut off the smaller side buds that often grow on the stem, leaving the largest top flower. This will direct all the plants energy to that one bloom.

Herbaceous Peonies: In the late fall, after the frost has killed back the foliage, you can cut herbaceous peonies to the ground. It’s best to wait until the plant has gone dormant.

Tree Peonies: Tree peonies have woody stems, so they don’t need to be cut to the ground. Instead, focus on removing any dead or weak branches. This can be done in late fall or early spring before new growth begins.

For both types of peonies, it’s essential to remove any spent flowers by cutting them back, or deadheading, to a strong leaf bud. This process helps encourage new growth and prevents seed production.

Remember that pruning should be done with clean, sharp pruning shears to avoid damaging the plants. Proper pruning helps maintain the health and appearance of your peonies.

Support and Staking

Peonies, especially some varieties with large, heavy blooms, may benefit from support and staking to prevent their stems from bending or breaking. Here’s what you need to know about supporting and staking peonies:

Support for Herbaceous Peonies:

  1. Peony Rings: These are circular metal or plastic supports that encircle the peony plant. They should be installed early in the season, so the emerging stems grow up through the support structure. The peony stems are then supported as they grow, preventing flopping.
  2. Bamboo Stakes: You can use bamboo stakes to support individual peony stems. Place them strategically around the peony plant, ensuring they are tall enough to provide adequate support for the mature blooms. You can wrap string, twine or jute around the stakes if the outside stems flop.

Support for Tree Peonies:

Some tree peonies have a naturally sturdy, upright growth habit and may not require staking. However, if you have a variety with heavy flowers or weak stems, you can use bamboo stakes or decorative plant supports to help prop up the branches and blooms. Another reason to understand the growth habit of the various cultivars before you choose.

Staking Tips:

  1. Install supports early: Place the supports in position early in the growing season, ideally when the peonies are a few inches tall. This allows the stems to grow up through the supports naturally.
  2. Be gentle: When securing the peony stems to the supports, use soft ties or twine to avoid damaging the plants. You want to support the stems without restricting their growth.
  3. Consider aesthetics: Opt for supports that complement your garden’s design and are visually appealing. There are various decorative plant supports available that can add an ornamental touch to your peony bed.
  4. Adjust as needed: Check your peonies periodically during their growth, and make any necessary adjustments to the supports as the plants get taller and their flowers develop. This will help prevent bending or breakage.

By providing appropriate support and staking when necessary, you can help your peonies maintain their elegant appearance and prevent their stems from drooping or breaking under the weight of their beautiful blooms.

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Mulching Peonies

As with all garden plants, peonies will benefit from a covering of organic mulch. Mulch is a gardeners close ally. Mother Nature is modest and prefers to be covered. Mulch will prevent (or at least slow down) weeds, help preserve moisture, and help regulate soil temperature.

The best mulch for growing peonies is well-rotted compost or leaf mold. These materials not only offer the benefits of mulch, they break down and enrich the soil with nutrients over time.

While compost and leaf mold are excellent choices, you can also use other organic mulch materials like well-rotted manure or straw. The key is to select mulch that provides these benefits and is readily available to you.

When applying mulch, spread it in a layer about 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) thick around the base of your peonies. Be sure to keep the mulch away from direct contact with the peony stems to prevent rot or fungal issues. Mulching in late fall or early spring is typically recommended.

Peonies Require Patience

A gardener’s guide to growing peonies also wouldn’t be complete without addressing proper expectations. Peonies take some time to grow up. If you have younger and less expensive plants, they’ll need more time to become big and beautiful. Enjoy their short time when they bloom, and you can even pick some flowers, but try not to cut too many in their first year.

Cutting and Enjoying Peonies

growing peonies

Cutting fresh flowers from your garden is one of the pleasures that too often goes unmentioned, in my humble opinion. Even the simplest display of peonies looks and smells magical in my home! Proof of how gardening unleashes your inner artist. Even if you aren’t cutting them, enjoying their beauty in your yard is one of the perks of all the work you put into them.

If you want to cut some peonies, choose the ones with tight buds early in the morning and put them in cool water. Use clean, sharp pruning shears to cut the stems. Make clean, diagonal cuts to prevent stem damage and allow for water uptake. The following are tips that will help your blooms last and stay beautiful for days.

Preparing Peony Blooms for Display

  • Clean Vase: Use a clean vase and fill it with fresh, room-temperature water. Cleanliness is important to prevent bacterial growth that can harm the flowers.
  • Remove Lower Foliage: Remove any foliage that will be submerged in the water to prevent bacterial contamination.
  • Strip Extra Leaves: Peonies can have a lot of foliage on their stems. It’s a good idea to remove some of the lower leaves to keep the water clean and prevent them from crowding the vase and rotting if they get wet.
  • Recut Stems: Before placing the peonies in the vase, recut the stems at an angle under running water. This helps to prevent air from entering the stems, which can block water uptake.
  • Water Level: Fill the vase about halfway with water. Peonies prefer shallow water, and filling the vase too high can lead to stem rot.
  • Avoid Direct Sunlight: Place the vase in a cool, shaded spot away from direct sunlight and drafts. Peonies are sensitive to heat and direct sun, which can cause them to wilt quickly.
  • Change Water: Change the water in the vase every two days or when it starts to look cloudy. Fresh water helps extend the life of the blooms.
  • Enjoy the Drama: Peonies have a dramatic cycle of opening and shedding their petals. Enjoy their beauty as they unfold over several days.

With these tips, you can cut and display your peony blooms to enjoy their beauty for as long as possible, usually about 5 to 7 days, sometimes longer.

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Peony Seasonal Maintenance

Overwintering peonies is essential if you live in a climate with harsh winter conditions. Typically that means prolonged periods of below zero temperatures, or damaging snow or ice storms. Here’s how to properly overwinter peonies:

Winter Preparations

  1. Cut Back Foliage: After the first frost has killed back the foliage, use clean pruning shears to cut herbaceous peonies to the ground. This helps prevent disease and pests from overwintering in the plant debris.
  2. Leave Some Stems: For woody tree peonies, avoid cutting them to the ground. Instead, prune away dead or weak branches. Leave some healthy stems in place to protect the plant during winter.
  3. Mulch: Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the peony plants. This helps insulate the soil and protect the roots from extreme cold temperatures. Use straw, shredded leaves, or pine boughs.
  4. Protection: In areas with severe winters, consider adding an additional layer of protection. Place a few evergreen boughs or a small wooden frame covered with burlap over the peonies to shield them from harsh winds and snow.

Maintenance During Winter

  • Check periodically to make sure mulch is still adequate, replacing if needed.
  • In late winter, as the weather begins to warm up, gradually remove the mulch from around the peonies. This allows the ground to warm up, signally it’s time to wake up and grow.

You may choose to apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in the early spring, but if you fertilized well in the fall it may not be necessary. By following these steps, you can protect your peonies during the winter months, ensuring they remain healthy and ready to produce beautiful blooms when the growing season returns.

Dividing Peonies

If your peony clumps are overcrowded and not blooming, consider dividing them in the fall. This will help rejuvenate the plant. Your timing for dividing them should include enough time after replanting to let them get established, at least 6 weeks before your expected first frost.

  • Prepare the Peony: Water it thoroughly a day or two before dividing. It will make the soil easier to work with.
  • Dig up the Peony: Using a spade or garden fork, carefully dig around the peony, staying a few inches away from the outer shoots. Dig deep, about 12 to 18 inches, to avoid damaging the roots.
  • Lift and Divide: Gently lift the peony clump from the ground. Shake or brush off excess soil until you can see the roots. Look for the eyes, which are small pink or white buds on the crown of the root. Each division should have at least one or two eyes. The eyes are the growing points.
  • Divide the Clump: Use a sharp, clean knife or garden shears to cut the peony into sections. It’s important to cut away any dead or diseased parts at this point.
  • If you aren’t planting the divisions right away, dust the cut ends with fungicide to prevent rot.
  • Plant the Divisions: Replant the divisions at the same depth the were planted, with the eyes no more than 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Space them appropriately to allow for healthy growth.
  • Care for them just like you did when you first planted them.
gardener's guide to growing peonies

Where Can I See Peonies?

There are several garden shows, arboretums, and botanical gardens in the Mid-Atlantic region that showcase peonies. Here are a few:

  1. U.S. National Arboretum (Washington, D.C.): The U.S. National Arboretum features a diverse collection of plants, including many peony varieties. They hold annual events and tours to showcase their peony collection. Admission is free. They have an informative interactive map of the arboretum on the website. You can search and find where plants are located, as well as information about the plant.
  2. Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania): Longwood Gardens is renowned for its stunning displays of peonies and other flowers. They have a dedicated Peony Garden that comes to life in the spring.
  3. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Richmond, Virginia): The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden features a wide range of plants, and their Rose Garden includes many peony varieties, adding to the beauty of the garden.
  4. Philadelphia Flower Show (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): While not a permanent garden, the Philadelphia Flower Show is one of the largest and long-lived garden shows in the country. The event features elaborate displays of various flowers and plants. It typically occurs in early March.
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Popular Peony Varieties

To complete our gardener’s guide to growing peonies here are some of the most popular varieties of Peonies. While popularity isn’t always the first reason to choose a particular plant, we can assume that most plants grow in popularity because they perform in ways that peony lovers wan them to.

  1. Sarah Bernhardt – Known for its classic beauty and sweet fragrance, this pink double peony is a timeless favorite. Its large, fully double blooms make it a perfect choice for cut flowers.
  2. Shirley Temple – This soft pink double peony with hints of cream is cherished for its delicate, feminine appearance. It’s a garden favorite for its elegant and understated charm.
  3. Festiva Maxima – A classic white double peony with crimson flecks, Festiva Maxima is renowned for its stunning and elegant appearance, making it a popular choice for weddings and special occasions.
  4. Karl Rosenfield – With its rich, deep red blooms, Karl Rosenfield stands out for its vibrant color and classic double peony form. It’s a favorite for bold, dramatic garden displays.
  5. Duchesse de Nemours – This fragrant white double peony with a touch of green at the center is beloved for its timeless and romantic appeal. Its exquisite fragrance adds to its popularity.
  6. Bartzella – As a yellow intersectional hybrid peony, Bartzella is admired for its striking color and unique appearance. It’s a standout in the garden.
  7. Bowl of Beauty – This single pink peony is adored for its charming and unique appearance, with a central crown of golden stamens. It adds a touch of whimsy to the garden.
  8. Coral Charm – Popular for its captivating coral color, Coral Charm is a semi-double peony that transitions in color as the blooms mature, adding intrigue to the garden.
  9. Miss America – A pristine white single peony with a golden center, Miss America is favored for its purity and elegance. It’s a classic choice for both gardens and cut flower arrangements.
  10. Alexander Fleming – With its vibrant magenta blooms and contrasting yellow stamens, Alexander Fleming is cherished for its bold and striking appearance, adding a pop of color to the garden.

Final Thoughts on Growing Peonies

These peony cultivars are popular not only for their beauty but also for their unique characteristics, whether it’s their fragrance, striking colors, or captivating forms. When I look at this list, I’m calculating where I can carve out some more space in my yard for a few more varieties. How could anyone be expected to choose just one?!

In both the garden and displayed on a table in your home, peonies bring so much satisfaction. The lush shapes, vibrant colors and scents bring a unique delight to a gardener. We hope this Gardener’s Guide to growing peonies helps you grow these elegant and beautiful flowers so that you can enjoy some of the most magnificent blooms we find in the perennial flower garden. Let’s cherish the brief but glorious presence of peonies for 50 years!

Added Bonus: A Gorgeous Coffee Table Book

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