Peonies are one of the most beautiful choices for adding some vibrant color to your garden. You’d think that for such an elegant, showy flower, growing peonies would be difficult. But they’re actually quite easy to plant and raise.
Whether you’re interested in a herbaceous type for a cut garden or the durability of a tree peony for a long-lasting display, this guide can help you make your peonies thrive.
Best Varieties of Peonies
There are three main types of peonies to consider when deciding what to grow in your garden. The three varieties are herbaceous, intersectional, and tree. Most people choose herbaceous peonies as they produce large blooms with bright petals and they blossom for a long time.
Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) die back to the ground in the fall after flowering and they’ll re-emerge with new stems in the spring.
‘Hot Chocolate’ has dark red flowers, while ‘Pink Cameo’ has massive, fragrant pink blossoms. ‘Pillow Talk’ has medium pink powder puff flowers perfect for cutting. If you prefer single flowers (those with fewer petals), ‘Miss America’ is a beautiful white option.
Tree peonies (Paeonia sect. Moutan) are impressive plants that can reach about four feet tall and flower from early April to late May. They don’t have quite the same impressive display as herbaceous types, but they don’t die back after flowering. The woody stem and foliage stick around until the winter when the leaves fall.
‘Dutchess of Kent’ is a vigorous grower with bright pink-red blossoms. ‘Shirley Temple’ has lovely baby pink flowers, and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is a full, ruffled, perennial favorite.
Intersectional or itoh peonies are a little more expensive because they aren’t as common, yet. But they’re catching on. They are a cross between a tree and herbaceous peonies, with a woody stem and big, bountiful blossoms. They bloom later in the year.
‘Sonoma Sun’ has sunny yellow petals with a hint of red and ‘Watermelon Wine’ has bright wine-purple flowers. ‘Love Affair’ is pure white with single flowers.
How To Plant Peonies
The first thing to think about when growing peonies is where you’re going to plant them in your garden. Peonies like to be kept in areas with lots of light and good air circulation. You should make sure that the location has at least six hours of sun exposure a day.
If you don’t give your peonies enough light, the flowers won’t bloom and you won’t get to enjoy the lovely colorful petals.
This plant needs well-draining soil that is slightly acidic, with a pH of around 6.5-7.0. It’s also possible to grow peonies in slightly clay or sandy soil, but you’ll need to work in lots of well-rotted compost to loosen the soil up or improve water retention.
If you opt to purchase seedlings, the job is fairly easy. Just dig a hole twice the width and about the same depth as the pot the plant is growing in. Remove the seedling from the container and place it gently in the hole.
Fill in around with fresh soil and water well. If you opt to use supports like a trellis or cage to keep the heavy flower heads upright during the growing season, now is the time to put them in place.
Once peonies start to bloom, it becomes more difficult to adjust or put support in place.
Peonies can be grown from seed, but keep in mind that some hybrids are sterile or they won’t grow true from seed. If you want a hybrid, it’s best to purchase a seedling from a store. Itoh peonies are infertile. Plants grown by seed take about five years to fully mature.
You can harvest the seeds once the pod has fully opened and exposed them. Plant seeds a quarter-inch deep in prepared soil in the early fall. If you don’t receive rain over the next few weeks, make sure to keep the soil moist.
Seedlings should emerge in the following spring.
Caring for Peonies
Water is crucial to maintaining the health of peonies, which means you need to be vigilant about the soil moisture levels and how dry the plant is. Peonies need about one or two inches of water every week.
If you don’t have a rain gauge to determine how much rain your area receives, just stick your finger in the ground. If it feels dry to your second knuckle, add water.
Add mulch to prevent weeds from growing and to help the soil retain moisture.
All-purpose, continuous-release fertilizer should be applied once in the spring before blooming and once in the summer after blooming, when your plants could benefit from extra nutrients.
Alternately, side-dress plants with a little well-rotted manure or compost once a month during the growing season.
As well as feeding your plant, it’s also necessary to prune peonies every so often. This mostly applies to tree peonies.
It’s especially important to cut off dead or diseased branches, but you can also do a bit of pruning to create a pleasing shape. Do this in the late winter when the buds have begun to swell.
Herbaceous peonies should be deadheaded, but otherwise, you don’t need to prune them. Remove dead leaves from the ground in the fall.
Common Diseases and Pests to Watch Out For
Peonies are fairly healthy, but like all plants, they have a few pests and diseases that might attack.
Many gardeners have problems with ants visiting their peonies as the sweet fragrance is attractive to these insects. The ants don’t cause any harm to your plant, and they can be beneficial, so don’t bother removing them.
If you decide to cut and bring your flowers indoors, just hold them upside down and shake them gently. If you cut the flowers as buds, just rinse them under water.
Unlike ants, thrips actually harm your peony plant. These tiny little insects like to hide in the petals and foliage, causing discoloration, deformed foliage, and necrotic areas. Head to our guide to learn how to deal with them.
Foliar and root-knot (Meloidogyne hapla) nematodes are a huge problem in some parts of the world. They can impact up to a fifth of all nursery plants. Leaf nematodes cause the leaves to curl up and turn black. Root-knot nematodes cause wilting and plant death.
Either one can make your flowers fail to form.
To learn how to identify and control them, check out our article.
One of the most common diseases when growing peonies is botrytis blight (Botrytis paeoniae). This condition is a fungal disease that is most prevalent in soil. However, this normally occurs when the plant is weak and the weather is particularly wet.
Botrytis can also spread from other plants if they become infected by this disease. Therefore, it’s good to keep an eye out for any signs of this illness when you’re checking on your plants.
The key signs of botrytis are:
- Gray mold on shoots
- Brown buds and stems
- Leaf spot
- Dropping petals
The best course of action is to cut off the infected areas as soon as you spot them. You can also use a copper-based fungicide on your plant to make sure that the infection hasn’t spread, and won’t spread further in the future.
A product that contains the beneficial fungus Unocladium oudemansii(U3 strain) is also highly effective.
Peony Leaf Blotch
Peony leaf blotch is another disease that is frequently found on these plants. This type of infection is also a fungal disease.
It is caused by Cladosporium paeoniae and creates glossy purple-brownish spots or streaks on leaves, which are the principal sign to look out for.
Good air circulation is a must. Keep your plants well-spaced and pruned. As much as you can, avoid wetting the leaves. Then, in addition, use fungicides to control it.
If you want to harvest your own flowers instead of spending hundreds of dollars on cut flowers, then growing peonies is going to give you an endless supply of fresh bouquets!
To harvest peony flowers, cut them when they have just opened or even as large buds and place them in a vase. It’s ideal to cut the stem in the morning when the stems are petals are most plump and full of water.
Alternatively, you can cut the flowers and keep them in a vase in your refrigerator so they’re ready to take to a party or gift to someone for their birthday.
If they are given the appropriate growing conditions and are properly looked after, these plants can bloom for 100 years!