Here’s How to Grow Peonies That Last Forever
When the first huge peony unfurls into a flounce of petals, you want to touch it, and live somewhere inside that magnificent bloom. The perfume, lifted by late-spring air, can’t be inhaled deeply enough. Of all those gorgeous garden flowers, you hope your peonies will last forever. Such giddiness is a springtime ritual in the Upper South. There, peonies become large, shrubby plants festooned with flowers. Divided and passed along for generations, peonies are a long-lived legacy. But move them to the warmer Middle and Lower South, and they’re a challenge.
Peonies need cold winter weather to flourish, and without sufficient cooling, few flowerbuds are produced. Here’s how to grow your best peonies that can weather the weather.
Where in the South Do the Peonies Grow?
Peonies are considered potentially poor performers in the Middle and Lower South, but there are secrets for helping them thrive. “Location is a big part of how well you’ll do with peonies,” says Rick Berry with Goodness Grows in Lexington, Georgia. “Here, we recommend partial shade, preferably with protection from afternoon sun.” Peonies grown in full sun often suffer leaf scorch by midsummer. The plants go dormant early, preventing them from building up food preserves. This reduces flowering the next year. In filtered light, however, peony foliage continues growing into late summer or early fall, storing energy for the following year’s blooms.
To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize?
Peonies do not require fertilizer when planted in good soil. “If you consider the beautiful ones you see in cemeteries, plants that have been there 30 years with virtually no attention, you realize that they do just fine without supplemental feeding,” Greg says. However, in many parts of the South, gardeners are faced with heavy, clay-based soil, which lacks the necessary nutrition. In these areas, apply Holland Bulb Booster after bloom, following the directions to prevent overfeeding.
What About Watering?
Soil preparation is important–peonies falter in wet conditions. They don’t want to be in soil that holds moisture. So dig a large, wide hole and amend the soil with leaf mold or soil conditioner, which is available at garden shops. To plant, mound the improved soil inside the hole. Then place the roots with the eyes just below the soil surface, facing up. This ensures adequate drainage and aids winter cooling.
Fruit, Flowers, and Foliage with James Farmer
We went behind the scenes with SL Editor-At-Large James Farmer at his Perry, Georgia cottage to talk about his best tips and tricks for holiday entertaining. When it comes to bringing color into his home, James sticks to these three 'F's – fruit, flowers, and foliage. Create a beautiful centerpiece or arrangement with these simple ideas.
What Kind to Buy?
The selection you choose may determine how well your peony blooms. There are also some really beautiful doubles that do well, but they should be the early kinds too. Many Southern gardeners believe the single varieties perform best in warmer regions. Dependable peony selections include ‘Festiva Maxima,’ ‘Paula Fay,’ ‘Bowl of Beauty,’ and ‘Kansas.”
Order by Mail. Order in Spring
When you order by mail, the plant you receive will be bare root. This means it is not actively growing and not planted in soil. “Order your peonies in spring, when you can see what blooms on plants in your area look like. You shouldn’t receive your peony until fall when it is shipped dormant. If planted immediately, the peony will resume a normal growth cycle in its new home. If you plant peonies in the spring, avoid bare-root plants. Instead, look to garden centers and nurseries where you will find them already growing in large containers.
A Peony for Life? A Dream Come True
“They say you should plant a peony for life,” Greg says. “What that means is that a peony will easily live for 50 years. It doesn’t mean you can’t move it.” The time to relocate a plant is late fall, when it’s dormant. After the foliage has died down, dig a wide ring around the plant, and carefully lift the roots. Replant it as you would a new peony. “Have patience. It may take several years to become established and bloom well,” Rick says.