I wonder if everyone thinks of their mothers and grandmothers when they admire peonies blooming in their own gardens or the gardens of others. This garden classic is often shared with sons and daughters when they create gardens at their first homes. I have peonies from my mom, grandmother and husband’s grandmother and I think of each of them when they bloom in late spring.
Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia officinalis) are easy to grow and extremely long-lived as long they are planted correctly and given a little tender loving care until they are established in the garden.
Peonies prefer a position with lots of sunshine. Full sun is best for the most blooms. In a partly sunny spot, they will still bloom but with fewer, smaller flowers.
They are not especially fussy about soil as long as it is well-drained and rich with organic matter. Amend heavy clay soils with compost or peat moss when planting. Mix in a cup of bonemeal or superphosphate, too.
Peony flowers last longer in a location sheltered from strong wind, and peony foliage remains healthier if provided good air circulation. Space peonies at least three feet apart.
Bareroot peonies are best planted in the fall. Plant swollen roots with at least three buds facing upward no more than two inches below the soil. If they are planted too deep, peonies will still grow beautiful foliage, but may never bloom. Water thoroughly, making sure roots don’t settle too deep into the soil. Be patient – you may have to wait a couple years to enjoy their beautiful blooms.
Container-grown peonies can be planted throughout the growing season. Follow the same good planting procedures as with other perennials: dig a hole at least twice as wide, amend the soil, and position the plant in its new home at the same level or slightly higher than it was in its pot.
Caring for Peonies
Peonies, especially those with large, double flowers, need some help standing tall. There are several options available to provide support. My favorites are the grow-through rings with grids. Purchase them at local garden centers or make your own. Take a sturdy tomato cage and tie pieces of garden twine from side to side in a grid pattern. Whichever support system is utilized, get it in place early so stems can grow through as they rise in spring.
Deadhead flowers as they fade by cutting stems below blooms down to a leaf to keep peonies looking neat. In periods of drought, water them. Keep mulch away from the base of peony plants.
In the fall, apply bonemeal or superphosphate IF plants indicate the need for fertilizer. Otherwise, spreading a thin layer of compost around established peonies should be all the food peonies need.
The most important chore in caring for peonies is done during the end-of-the-season cleanup. At this time, peonies should be cut back to the ground and the plant debris removed from the garden. Diseases may overwinter on foliage left in the garden, infecting plants next year. Never add peony foliage to the compost bin.
Peonies rarely, if ever, require dividing. Sharing plants with others is the most common reason gardeners divide peonies. In fall, cut back the foliage and dig up the clump. Using a clean, sharp knife, cut the roots into sections, making sure there are at least three buds on each section. Share pieces with friends and family and re-plant the rest.
Pests & Diseases on Peonies
Peonies rarely fall prey to garden pests. Ants are often suspected of causing problems on peonies, but they are just dining on exudate and cause no damage. Gardeners who are frequently visited by deer will appreciate peonies are rarely on their menu.
Peonies are, however, sometimes affected by fungal diseases. Botrytis blight is probably the most common and causes their foliage to blacken and their flower buds to wither. Remove infected foliage, and plants can be sprayed with fungicides.
Powdery mildew is another common problem in areas with poor air circulation. It looks like gray powder on foliage.
The best defense to both diseases is to site and plant peonies correctly.
Herbaceous peonies may be single, semi-double or double. They are available in a wide range of colors from white to yellow, light pink to deep rose, and many shades of red. Most grow three feet tall and almost as wide.
Peonies are a must-have in sunny perennial gardens planted as companions to irises and roses. Partner them with lilacs or hydrangeas in a shrub border. Put them to work as a low hedge. And when they bloom, enjoy the memories of past gardens and gardeners. Garden with me!