Peonies in the Spring Garden

Oh Peonies!

What’s not to love? Huge, lush and romantic blooms. Plants that can live for centuries. In floriography–the language of flowers–peonies represent everything lush and prolific: good fortune, happy marriage, riches, honour, and compassion. Join us for a quick read to learn more about peonies!

Everything you need to know about peonies

Peonies thrive in zones 2 to 8, depending on variety. Here in zone 7a, the rules for success are simple: provide full sun and well-drained soil. Peonies relish our cold winters. During dormancy, the plant builds strength for the coming year and puts all it’s energy into forming small buds that will become big blooms.

Types:

There are three types of peonies: tree, Itoh (intersectional), and herbaceous (bush). Garden Design Magazine has an excellent comparison breakdown for you here:  Types of Peonies.

Height/Spread:

Tree peonies can reach 4 to 7 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide. Itoh and herbaceous varieties grow 1 to 3 feet tall and wide.

Sun or shade?

Peonies like full sun and it is in the bright light of Spring that you will best experience full and abundant blooms. Note that tree peonies prefer dappled shade in the Mid Atlantic’s intense midday heat.

When do peonies bloom?

Peonies are another way we can mark our seasonal calendars.  In most locations, flowers will bloom in April, May or June. In fact, peonies often bloom just in time for Mother’s Day and early graduations and are a perfect cut flower for Spring weddings and showers. Tree peonies bloom first, followed by herbaceous varieties, then intersectionals. Creative gardeners know to include all three types of peonies in the garden to enjoy blooms for most of the late Spring and early summer season.

Flower colors:

Peonies come in every shade of beautiful: we sell them in every shade of white, pink, red, coral, maroon, and yellow. Some peony plants change color as they open. You will delight in check in on your plants daily during the growing and blooming season so you can see how they transform.

Fragrance:

Many peony flowers are fragrant, some are sweet, some citrusy, and others slightly spicy.

Pests and diseases:

Japanese beetles can be a problem for peony plants. They are also susceptible to botrytis blight and powdery mildew. Good air circulation around your plants can help prevent this. Learn more about issues that can arise in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s guide to peony problems.

Do critters eat peonies?

We are so happy to report that peonies are deer and rabbit resistant.

HOW TO PLANT PEONIES

Peony Shoots, Spring 123RF Chicago, IL

If planted well, herbaceous peonies will happily send up new shoots each spring for decades. Photo by: gutaper / 123RF.

Where to plant peonies:

Peony plants need a location with 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day, good drainage, and plenty of room. Picking the right spot is essential for success. Established plants have deep roots that make transplanting difficult or even impossible.

Tip: The experts from the University of Michigan’s Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum recommend planting them far away from large trees and shrubs as they do not like to have root competition.

How deep to plant a peony:

Our Certified Professional Horticulturist Zach Ebaugh notes that how deep you plant your peony will depend on the type you purchase and where you are planting.

  • Herbaceous: 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: Plant deeper than herbaceous types. Experts suggest digging a hole 2 feet deep and 1 foot wide and amend the backfill 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: Plant just below the soil surface, 1/2 inch deep in warm zones, 1.5 inches in cooler zones.

What type of soil is best for peonies?

Some gardeners have success growing peonies in native soil, but Zach recommends amending the soil with organic matter such as Bloom or Leafgro before planting. Add the appropriate amount of BioTone from Espoma to maximize growth, health of the plant, and blooms. Plant peonies in well-draining soil: they don’t like wet soil or soggy roots.

Growing peonies in pots:

While happiest in the garden, peonies can be grown in pots if given the proper attention.

  • Select a large container with plenty of drainage holes. We love Aquapots for this application, as containers dry out quickly. Aquapots are a self-watering option so you don’t have to babysit your plants quite as much.

Pruning

Unlike roses, peony bushes do not require precise pruning to thrive. Often pruning is only necessary in the event of damage or disease.

  • Herbaceous peonies: At the end of the growing season, cut your herbaceous peonies all the way to the ground.
  • Intersectional peonies: Cut back at the end of the growing season, leaving 4 to 6 inches of stem.
  • Tree peonies: After five years, remove suckers from the center of the shrub to thin out growth and promote better air circulation—a dense snarl of branches can lead to doom. Do not cut back until they are well established—they are slow growing, so every inch is precious. Pruning during the first two to three years will hinder their progress and slight you on next year’s display. Take care not to cut the woody stems because they bloom on old wood.

Watering

Peonies are not thirsty plants—in fact, overwatering can lead to problems. Give your peony bush 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.

Disbudding peonies:

If you want large flowers, remove the side-buds that develop near the base of each terminal bud. However, if you want to prolong the blooming season, leave the side-buds alone—they will bloom later than the terminal buds.

Can I divide my peony?

Peonies do not need regular division for successful blooming. However, if you’d like to have more, you can divide your mature plants as a form of propagation. The best time for dividing is in the fall when the plant is nearing dormancy. Peony roots cut into pieces with 3-5 eyes have the best chance of success. Learn more about dividing peonies.

Do peonies require complex staking?

Many varieties of peonies need stakes to support heavy blooms, especially if you live in a rainy climate. In fact, because the blooms are so abundant and beautiful, you may want stakes that will hold them up just to show them off even better! Herbaceous varieties can be supported with a peony ring, while tree peonies are more suited for the use of bamboo stakes and natural twine. If staking seems like too much hassle, there are many varieties that feature strong stems that don’t require staking.

Should I mulch?

In very cold climates, peonies 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 early spring to allow new growth at the soil surface. For tree peonies especially, 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.

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

Why are ants on my peonies?

Peony buds secrete a sweet nectar that attracts ants. The ants do not hurt the plant and they aren’t required for the blooms to open. If cutting flowers to take indoors, gently rinse the blossoms in a bucket of water to get rid of the ants.

Leaf curl:

When a peony’s leaves curl it is a sign of stress. This can be caused by lack of water, a virus, or unusual weather conditions. Many plants recover from leaf curl if the issue is corrected and go on to bloom normally.

Have Questions?

Homestead Gardens is here to help. Visit the location nearest you, or email us at [email protected].