Pretty in Pink: How to Grow Peonies in the South
You've probably heard that it's too hot in the South to grow peonies. You've heard wrong. These prestigious perennials can thrive here, as long as you know how to care for them properly. Fortunately, you can lean on the Grump for instruction. As Shakespeare wrote, " 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd."
People love peonies because they bear huge, glorious flowers in spring and early summer that come in a wide range of colors and forms. They make cut flowers par excellence, and many are fragrant. These plants may live for generations, and deer won't eat them. Let's address the fundamentals of growing peonies south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Basic Requirements for Peonies
First, in the South peonies need at least six hours of full sun a day with light shade in the hot afternoon. Second, moist, fertile, well-drained soil—don't plant in clay or sand unless you crave utter futility. Third, space. In time, peonies grow 3 feet wide or more, and they don't like competing with roots from nearby trees and shrubs. Fourth, proper selection. Choose heat-tolerant types that bloom early. Finally, some winter chill. (In USDA Zone 9, dump a big bag of ice atop every plant each week in winter. Your neighbors will think your home is party central, but I hear it works.)
Kinds of Peonies
Herbaceous peonies are the most familiar. Their foliage dies to the ground in winter. USDA Zone 8 (which includes places like Dallas, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; and Charlotte, North Carolina) is their southern limit. Tree peonies have woody trunks that don't die down. They bear flowers the size of dinner plates and grow as far south as northern Florida. Intersectional peonies are hybrids of herbaceous and tree types. They take heat as well as tree peonies and flaunt huge flowers over a long season. Their foliage dies down in winter.
How Peony Plants Are Sold
You can buy these plants two ways. The first is in pots. That's the only option for buying them at certain times of year. It's convenient because you know the roots are planted at the right depth, but potted peonies can be expensive. The second option is as dormant roots, which are cheaper and offer more choices. Dormant roots are shipped in fall and spring from mail-order specialists like Peony's Envy and must be planted immediately at the right depth. Place herbaceous and intersectional roots so the plump pink or white buds near the top are ½ inch below the soil surface. Plant tree peony roots so that the graft union (the notch where the roots meet the trunk) is 4 to 6 inches below the soil surface.
Cutting Back Foliage
It's important to wait until fall to cut back the foliage of peonies if you want to see flowers next year. Bag the cut foliage, and throw it out with the trash to remove any disease spores. Listen to Grumpy, and do not prune any woody part of tree peonies until right after they finish blooming—and only if it's absolutely necessary.
The Grumpy Gardener shares some of his favorite peonies for impressive blooms and fragrance.
1. "Festiva Maxima"
Red-flecked white blossoms that are Southern favorites
2. "Coral Charm"
An early-blooming peony producing notably large flowers
Long-blooming, reliable selection that thrives in full sun
4. "Sarah Bernhardt"
Perfumed pink blossoms with silvery edges
Heat tolerant with a long season of vibrant flowers
A tree peony with red petals encircling showy gold stamens
7. "Elsa Sass"
Intensely fragrant flowers that come late in the season
8. "Nippon Beauty"
A selection that produces an abundance of deep red blooms