HOW TO GROW PEONIESLearn about growing peonies with this planting and care advice from the pros
Peonies, a resilient and long-lived perennial, have a history of popularity as a garden plant. They offer big, fluffy, fragrant flowers available in a diverse range of colors, forms and sizes.
WHAT TYPE OF PEONY SHOULD I GROW?
There are three types of peonies, here’s a comparison:
WHERE DO PEONIES GROW?
Amy Hall of Peony Farm in Sequim, Washington advises peony shoppers to choose varieties suited to their areas, but avows that every state has microclimate “pockets for peonies.”
Here are the facts you need to know when selecting peonies for your garden:
- Need a certain amount of cold weather to flower
- There are garden-worthy varieties for Zones 2 to 8
- Southern gardeners should favor early bloomers
- Hardy from Zones 4 to 9
- Don’t demand below-freezing temperatures
- Do require a dormancy period
- In regions where winter is a nonevent, dormancy can be forced by trimming off the leaves
- Winter protection with burlap and a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch (pulled aside in the spring) is wise in Zone 4 and colder parts of Zone 5
- Die back to the ground when winter comes
- Can be hardier than tree peonies
- Are more tolerant of heat and humidity
WHEN DO PEONIES BLOOM?
In most locations, peonies will bloom in April, May or June. Expect tree peonies to bloom first (around Mother’s Day), followed by herbaceous varieties (around Memorial Day) and then the intersectionals. If you include all three types in the garden—tree, herbaceous, intersectional—you can enjoy the blooms for up to seven weeks.
Keep the following in mind:
- Peonies planted in the fall (prior to the first frost) will have the best chance of blooming the following spring.
- If you plant in spring, you may not see blooms for two years or more.
- Most peonies only bloom once a year. However, a few tree peonies have been known to rebloom, including ‘High Noon’ and ‘Alhambra’.
- Hall says it can take two to three years for a newly planted tree peony to get settled and start blooming well.
- Many peony flowers change color as they open, so make sure to check them daily to appreciate their shifting hues.
Here’s how long each type of peony bloom will last:
- Herbaceous peonies bloom for an average of 7-10 days depending on the cultivar.
- If protected from the hot afternoon sun, the blooms of a tree peony can last as long as 14 days.
- Intersectional peonies can produce blooms for a period of 3-4 weeks.
WHERE SHOULD I PLANT MY PEONY?
Picking the right spot to plant your peony is essential to its success. If sited incorrectly, deep roots make transplanting of mature peonies difficult or impossible. Aside from the proper amount of sunlight and nutrient-rich soil, you’ll want to make sure peonies are planted in an area where you can enjoy their gorgeous flowers. Furthermore, because peonies hate wet feet (roots standing in water), “a slope or raised bed is preferable to a very flat site,” says Kasha Furman of Cricket Hill Garden. And don’t forget to plan ahead and give tree peonies plenty of room—most grow to five by five feet in their 10th year.
WHAT DOES A PEONY SMELL LIKE?
Many peony flowers are fragrant. Their scents can differ between cultivars—some are scented sweetly of lemons, some have enticing citrus smells, and some are described as slightly spicy. Words like delicious and confectionary are often used to describe the smell of a peony. Decide how strong you want the scent—some peonies are lightly scented, while others have a heady fragrance. For example, Chinese tree peonies have a stronger fragrance than Japanese tree peonies.
DO PEONIES NEED FULL SUN?
Most peonies are sun-lovers. “They require almost nothing but full sun and patience,” says Kathleen Gagan of Peony’s Envy in New Jersey. However, tree peonies are an exception.
Herbaceous and intersectional peonies should be planted in a spot with at least five to six hours of full sun per day. However, plants that produce single and anemone flower forms may benefit from some afternoon sun protection.
Tree peonies prefer light shade during the heat of midday, which encourages the blossoms to linger 10 to 14 days, rather than fading in a blink (two to three days) in full sun. In China, parasols are enlisted to protect the delicate flowers from sun.
WHAT TYPE OF SOIL IS BEST FOR PEONIES?
Some gardeners have success growing peonies in their native soil, but most experts recommend amending with organic matter before planting. Proper soil preparation will make it so you don’t have to fertilize for the first few years of your peonies life. No matter what, ensure that the soil is well-draining, peonies will not do well with soggy roots.
Here are some tips for improving your soil:
- Herbaceous peonies love potassium; a 5-10-10 slow release fertilizer is a good choice.
- Peonies are heavy feeders and strongly prefer a sweet or alkaline soil, which may require adding lime or wood ash. “The plant does not uptake the nutrients as well if it’s in an acid environment,” Furman explains.
- Additional trace minerals (such as Azomite®) will inspire tree peonies to increase their flower size, bud count and ratio of double flowers, and to intensify flower color.
HOW DEEP DO YOU PLANT A PEONY PLANT?
The depth at which you plant your peony will depend on the type of peony and your climate.
Here are the planting depths for each type of peony:
- Herbaceous peonies: Position these with their “eyes” (next year’s buds) ½ inch (in warmer zones) to 2 inches (in cooler zones) below the soil surface.
- Tree peonies: Plant deeper than herbaceous peonies. Gagan suggests digging a hole 2 feet deep and 1 foot wide (after amending the soil with organic matter). Position with the graft 4 to 6 inches below ground level, so that the “nurse” herbaceous peony rootstock will die away.
- Intersectional peonies: Plant them just below the soil surface, 1/2 inch in warm zones, 1.5 inches in cooler zones.
SHOULD I PRUNE MY PEONY?
Unlike roses, peonies do not require precise pruning to thrive. Often pruning is only necessary in the event of damage or disease. Both herbaceous peonies and intersectionals should be cut back at the end of the growing season. Cut your herbaceous peonies all the way to the ground, but leave 4 to 6 inches of stem on your intersectionals.
For tree peonies, a dense snarl of branches can lead to doom. After five years, remove suckers from the center of the shrub to thin out growth and promote better air circulation. Do not cut back tree peonies until they are well established—they are slow growing, so every inch is precious. Pruning during the first two to three years will just hinder their progress and slight you on next year’s display. When pruning tree peonies, take care not to cut the woody stems—they bloom on old wood.
CAN I DIVIDE MY PEONY?
Peonies do not need regular division for successful blooming. However, if you’d like to have more peonies, you can divide your mature plants as a form of propagation. The best time for dividing peonies is in the fall when the plant is nearing dormancy. Roots cut into pieces with 3-5 eyes have the best chance of success.
DO PEONIES REQUIRE COMPLEX STAKING?
Many peonies should be staked to support heavy blooms, especially if you live in a rainy climate. Herbaceous peonies can be supported with a peony ring, while tree peonies are more suited for the use of bamboo stakes and natural twine. If this sounds like too much hassle, there are many varieties of peonies that feature strong stems that don’t require staking.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD I WATER MY PEONY?
Peonies are not overly thirsty plants—in fact, overwatering can lead to problems. Give your peonies excellent drainage and begin watering in spring if you go more than two weeks without rain. Then, provide weekly, deep watering throughout the dry summer months (one inch at each watering). Continue watering after flowering to ensure vigorous plants the following year. There is no need to water once they have gone dormant.
SHOULD I MULCH MY PEONIES?
In very cold climates, peonies may benefit from a loose winter mulching with organic matter such as pine needles or shredded bark. Keep mulch a few inches away from the base of the plant. Remove the mulch in spring to allow new growth at the soil surface.
CAN PEONIES BE GROWN IN A POT?
Peonies are happiest in the garden, but can be grown in pots if given the proper attention. Select a large container with plenty of drainage holes. In colder areas, bring potted peonies in for the winter to protect them from freezing temperatures; plants in containers are more susceptible to frost damage. Additionally, you will need to water more frequently during the growing season, as containers dry out quickly.
WHY DIDN’T MY PEONY BLOOM?
Many gardeners have difficulty understanding why their peonies don’t bloom. Here are the most common reasons:
- They are planted too deeply
- There isn’t enough sunlight
- Your soil is heavy on nitrogen
- The plants are still young
RECOMMENDED PEONY VARIETIES
‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’
This delicious coral-pink introduction from Roy Klehm features rose-shaped semidouble flowers with rounded petals and a center clutch of dainty yellow stamens and cream-colored carpels. Beautiful even as flowers fade to apricot then pale yellow. Fragrant and great for bouquets. Winner of the APS Gold Medal in 2000 and Award of Landscape Merit in 2009.
This confectionary double peony, a cross between ‘Salmon Dream’ and ‘Lemon Chiffon’, opens pastel pink and fades to cream, blooming early to mid season. Sturdy stems are 30 inches tall. From world-renowned hybridizer of herbaceous and tree peonies, Bill Seidl.
A classic peony, introduced in 1944 by Lyman Glasscock, and still one of the best reds. The flower form is known as a “bomb,” with one or two rows of flat outer petals encircling a tight foosball of curly petals. Amy Hall calls the flower “awe inspiring.” Early and long flowering, ‘Red Charm’ is heat tolerant and has sturdy stems. An ideal peony for the South. APS Gold Medal winner in 1956.
“Stunning!” says Amy Hall about this vivid flower, its shocking-pink petals glowing like neon when the sun shines through them. An oldie but goodie, ‘Paula Fay’ was introduced by Orville Fay in 1968 and won the APS Gold Medal in 1988. Early, fragrant, floriferous, and sturdy—a good choice for southern gardens.
An early single to semidouble with cuplike flowers of salmon pink or coral, with a slight sheen to the petals. A hybrid created by David Reath between hot-pink ‘Paula Fay’ and the cream-colored ‘Moonrise’. Forms a sturdy, weather-resistant, 3-foot-tall perennial with dark green, glossy foliage. Winner of an APS Gold Medal in 2008 and Award of Landscape Merit in 2009.
Named for the god of fire by breeder Nassos Daphnis, a Greek-American artist who became a highly respected tree peony hybridizer. Semi-double flower form, with deep red, ruffled, velvety petals. The tall stems hold blooms well above foliage, but be sure to protect the plant from strong winds. Roy Klehm calls this variety “luscious.” APS Gold Medal winner in 2009.
A cultivar of Paeonia suffruticosa with huge 5- to 10-inch-wide vibrant yellow flowers that look like roses, this peony is marked by central red flares and is scented sweetly of lemons. Floriferous from late spring to early summer and can rebloom in late summer. Forms a handsome shrub 5 feet tall and wide, with foliage that turns purplish green-bronze in autumn. APS Gold Medal winner in 1989.
Klehm’s Song Sparrow catalog describes the exceptional coloring of this fragrant tree peony as having pearly-mauve to peachy-yellow petals suffused with rose, touched by raspberry flares, surrounding a circlet of golden stamens. A heavy bloomer, each singleform flower is 6 inches across. Vigorous and graceful, it creates a sturdy 3-foot-tall rounded shrub. From A.P. Saunders, introduced in 1942.
Crinkled petals of warm golden yellow, with central flares of dark red and an enticing citrus fragrance. This is a mid-season bloomer, but if you’re lucky it can sometimes rebloom in the fall. Vigorous grower with an upright form, to 4 feet tall. A reliable older variety, introduced by A.P. Saunders in 1948, this is a good choice for new gardeners.
Single-form flowers open cherry red and morph into apricot, then to creamy yellow, with all three colors present simultaneously on a single plant. Amy Hall likens this peony to a work of art. This mid- to late-season floriferous bloomer is good both in the garden and in bouquets and is graced with a slightly spicy scent. Compact and spreading at 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide, it holds up well without staking.
If you want a “wow” plant, Amy Hall says this is it. It has magnificent yellow blossoms 6 to 9 inches across, a lemony, spicy fragrance, semi-double to double flowers, and a mid- to late-season bloom. ‘Bartzella’ can produce up to 80 flowers in a season. It’s gorgeous in the garden and in a vase, where flowers can last about a week. The triumph of 12 years of hybridizing by Roger Anderson. APS Gold Medal winner in 2006
This is the earliest of the intersectional peonies to bloom, hence the name. Has pinkish lavender silky petals with red flares and semi-double to double flowers 6 to 8 inches across. As flowers open they become lighter in color. Over the years as plants mature the flowers become more double. The plant forms a clump 2 to 3 feet tall and wide crowned by up to 50 blossoms.
This bright-red single holds its vibrant color in full sun, often deepening to wine red. Upward-facing blossoms are lotus shaped and held well above the foliage, each cupping a boss of yellow stamens and red-tipped carpels. One of the faster growing peonies, it matures to about 3 feet tall and wide in about five to six years. A 2013 introduction by internationally recognized peony breeder Roger Anderson.
This long-blooming introduction from Hollingsworth Peonies has semi-double to double citron yellow flowers with scarlet flares and a lemony fragrance. At 2 feet tall, it’s shorter than other intersectional hybrids, but give it space at planting time to allow for its eventual 5-foot width. Blooms mid to late spring. Winner of numerous awards, including the APS Gold Medal in 1996 and Award of Landscape Merit in 2009.