How to Grow Perfect Peonies Like Your Grandmother

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Peonies remind me of my grandparents and my mother, who always had these beautiful anchor flowers in their gardens. My mother even had an offspring of one of her father’s best peony plants right outside of our living room window. Not only can peonies continue to grow and bloom for over 100 years, but they have a unique vintage look and feel that makes them such a joy to grow.

Types of peony plants

Peony flowers have truly show-stopping blooms and come in three main types: herbaceous, tree, and itoh. The most common is the herbaceous peony – also known as the traditional garden peony (Paeonia lactiflora). Not only do the flowers on this plant emit a fabulous fragrance, but the leaves grow from the ground, making it a relatively short plant. Garden peonies come in typical peony colors, including pink, red, and white.

Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa or Paeonia lemoinei) grow tall from a tree-like base. These peonies are also called deciduous peonies and are more expensive and grow slower than other varieties.

Itoh peony, or intersectional peony (Paeonia lemoinei x Paeonia lactiflora) is a  hybrid of herbaceous peonies and Itoh peonies. This type offers unusual colors, including orange and yellow. They grow to a mid-range height that is somewhere between the garden and tree types.

Planting peonies

Careful attention to best planting rules will ensure that your peony plants thrive and produce beautiful flowers.

Timing: Peonies are sold as a division of a young, healthy plant or as bare-root tubers. The best time to plant them is in the fall, just a few weeks before the first frost. This is also the best time to relocate an established plant. If you must plant in the spring, be sure that the ground is easy to work and that there is no risk of frost. Keep in mind, peonies planted in the spring will lag behind fall-planted peonies.

Spacing: Space peony plants 3-4 feet apart to give them plenty of room to spread. Be careful not to plant peonies too deeply – no more than 2 inches below the soil. If you plant them too deeply, they will send out shoots but no flowers.

Location: Peonies like full sun and well-drained soil. Choose a spot that will allow the roots to grow undisturbed. The best spots are sheltered from the wind and not too close to other trees, shrubs, or plants where they will compete for resources.

Caring for peonies

Proper flower care will help your plants grow strong and disease-free.

Watering: Peonies like to be watered at the base of the plants, without the moisture touching the foliage. Provide enough water to moisten the top 5 inches of soil. Be sure to continue to water plants even after the flowers have wilted. The plant part needs water to grow well.

Feeding: Adult peonies like to be fed with bonemeal, compost, or well-rotted manure in the early summer. Use caution around young shoots and stems. The best fertilizer is one with high levels of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Nitrogen heavy fertilizers are not good for peonies and should be avoided because while they will help foliage grow strong, they will discourage healthy and prolific blooms.

Deadheading after bloom: In the spring, peonies will reward you with a beautiful show of colors in full bloom. After plants bloom, however, it is essential to remove faded flowers to help the plant save energy for next year’s bloom. Deadheading also prevents fungal diseases.

Pruning: Prune tree peonies in late spring, removing any damaged wood. Make cuts at an angle, directly above outward-facing buds. Cut peonies back once a year, waiting until the last frost has killed off the foliage. Proper pruning will result in healthy spring plants ready to bloom.

Be on the watch for common peony diseases: Ants love peonies, and you are bound to see lots of them meandering around in the blooms. Don’t worry; they won’t bother the health of your plants. However, it is essential to check your plants for signs of common diseases, including:

  • Botrytis blight – This condition happens in the damp season when leaves get too wet and develop a dark gray mold. If your plants develop blight, remove diseased plants, or prune the stems back until you see healthy tissue. Be sure to sterilize your pruners after every use to keep the disease from spreading. Be sure to rake up all debris as the fungus can overwinter in untidy gardens.
  • Powdery mildew – If you see a white powder on your plant, it is probably mildew. Not much need to worry as this won’t hurt your plants. To help prevent powdery mildew, be sure to cut back plants in the fall.
  • Peony blotchBlotch is also known as red spot or measles. Although this won’t kill your plant, it does disfigure it. If you suspect blotch, cut stems to the ground and rake up and discard the debris.
  • Peony wiltThis fungal infection is in the soil and can lead to the death of leaves and stems and eventually plant death. If you suspect peony wilt, you can contact your local Cooperative Extension Office, and they can test your stems.




Ready to enjoy the lasting beauty of peonies?

-Susan Patterson

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