How to Grow and Care for Peonies

Bring these beauties to your garden.

Because peony plants live for decades, they should be considered a permanent addition to your landscape, not unlike planting a tree. Proper planting will ensure flowers for years to come.

Peonies are perennial blooms that emerge in the springtime with large, showy flowers that last for weeks. Depending on the variety and your location, peonies start blooming in early spring and continue until summer. Relatively low-maintenance, peonies need full sun, well-drained soil, and good air circulation to thrive yearly. These plants are still toxic to animals and people when consumed. Here's what you need to know to grow and care for peonies this year—and for years to come.

Plant Attributes

  • Common Name: Peony, Garden Peony, Chinese Peony
  • Botanical Name: Paeonia
  • Family: Paeoniaceae
  • Plant Type: Perennial, Bulb, Tuber, Rhizome, Shrub, Herbaceous
  • Mature Size: 3 ft. tall, 3 ft. wide
  • Sun Exposure: Full
  • Soil Type: Well-drained
  • Soil pH: Slightly Acidic to Neutral (pH 6.5-7.0)
  • Bloom Time: Spring, Summer
  • Flower Color: Red, Pink, Purple, Yellow, White
  • Hardiness Zones: Zones 2-9 (USDA)
  • Native Area: Asia, Europe, and Western North America
  • Toxicity: toxic to pets, toxic to people

Peony Care

Light

Choose a site in full sun or light afternoon shade in the Lower South.

Soil

Choose a sunny, well-drained spot free from competing roots of nearby trees and shrubs. For each rhizome, dig an area 1 1⁄2 to two feet wide, loosening and turning the soil to a depth of at least one foot. Work in copious amounts of organic matter—such as garden compost, composted manure, or chopped leaves—to which you've added a cup of super-phosphate.

Water

When first establishing a root system, it's best to consistently water peonies. After the plant matures, around one inch of water should suffice, as peonies are drought-tolerant for short durations. Mainly, the soil should be well-drained to prevent fungus and rot.

Temperature and Humidity

Peonies thrive in full sun, but these plants need cold winters for bud formation—Plant peonies in an area that will protect them from strong winds in regions prone to storms.

Fertilizer

Peonies should bloom every year after their first season if fertilized twice annually. Feed plants with a low-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 5-10-10. Spread about half a cup around mature plants in the spring when the shoots are beginning to emerge. Reduce the amount to one-fourth of a cup around new, young plants. Repeat in the fall. Alternatively, top dress with an inch of compost in spring before mulching—repeat in fall.

Types of Peonies

Check out some of our favorite peony varieties, including some listed below:

  • 'Red Charm': This crimson, herbaceous peony has showy flowers and a rose-like scent. This variety is excellent for areas with high temperatures as it's relatively heat-tolerant.
  • 'Apricot Whisper': Lightening as the petals reach the edges, this peach-apricot peony has beautiful ruffles that bloom early in the season.
  • 'Pink Parfait': A classic, large, round peony with multiple layers of petals. This slightly fragrant variety blooms in late spring or early summer.

Pruning

For the most part, peonies only need pruning if it is damaged or diseased. After the final blooms, cut back dead branches, or in some cases to right above the last bud, to help promote healthy growth the following year. Some peonies might require you to thin out the shrub to encourage better air circulation, but do not cut back until the plant is well-established.

Propagating Peonies

To propagate, dividing mature peonies in the fall just before dormancy is the best option. Here's how:

  1. Cut back foliage and use a sharp tool to dig a clump of peony roots.
  2. At the juncture of roots and stem growth, next year's bud should be visible and protruding. (red shoots).
  3. Cut a section with at least three buds or "eyes" with a sharp knife.
  4. Place the new divisions (each with at least three "eyes") in soil with the buds facing upward.
  5. Plant around two inches below the ground's soil level. Blooms may not appear the following year as dividing peonies can take up to two years or more to form into new growth.

How to Grow Peonies

It's best to plant herbaceous peonies in the fall or early spring as bare-root plants consisting of compact rhizomes with thick, fleshy roots and several "eyes" (growth buds). Plant tree peonies, which nearly all graft onto herbaceous peony roots, in the fall or spring—These can be purchased bare-root. However, many growers offer container-grown tree peonies to set out whenever the ground isn't frozen.

Position herbaceous peony roots, so the eyes are exactly one inch below the soil surface. Deeper planting may reduce flowering. Make sure each rhizome has at least three eyes—rhizomes with fewer eyes take a long time to bloom. Set tree peonies so that the graft line is three to four inches below the soil surface (the object is to get the shrubby top to root on its own). Mulch peonies in spring to cool the roots and retain soil moisture. Plants usually don't bloom in the first year.

To gather peony flowers for bouquets, cut them just as the buds begin to open. Leave at least three leaves behind on every stem you cut, and don't remove more than half the blooms from any clump—This preserves sufficient leaf surface to build up food reserves for the following year. Promptly removing spent flowers before they set seed also aids future flowering.

Overwintering

If severe cold weather is except, some mulching can help support peonies, but for the most part, these are cold-hardy plants. Cut peony foliage to the ground to avoid disease and after blooming ends, lightly pack the peony shrub's base with pine needles or shredded bark.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

The good news is that deer seldom browse peonies. However, a fungal disease called botrytis sometimes appears during cool, damp weather. Flower buds blacken and fail to develop, and stems wilt and collapse. To prevent the problem, ensure adequate air circulation around the plants, and clean up the garden in autumn, disposing of all fallen peony leaves and old mulch. Japanese beetles are also a common pest associated with peonies, so as new growth emerges in the spring, spread fresh mulch, and spray it with a copper fungicide.

How to Get Peonies to Bloom

If you are having difficulty getting peonies to bloom, poor flowering has many possible causes.

  • The plant is too young, so wait a while to let the peony mature. Peonies might not seem to grow in the first year, especially if produced from divided roots, but maintaining good plant health will help them thrive in years to come. Also, if this is the second (or third) time you've divided the peony, you might need to wait for it to mature.
  • If the planting depth is too deep or too shallow, lift the peony during its dormant season and replant it at the proper depth. Peonies planted in too shady areas have the same issue. Move the plant to a sunnier spot.
  • A late freeze killed the flower buds. If this happens, new growth might not appear until the following year. Alternatively, if the weather tends to be too hot too early in your area, plant the early-flowering variety of peonies.
  • As buds begin to enlarge and grow top-heavy, support stems with subtle wire stakes or branches left over from pruning. Stick them into the soil to support the heavy blooms, especially during spring rains.

Common Problems With Peonies

Fortunately, peonies are hardy plants that don't suffer from many pests or diseases, but sometimes the occasional issue will arise. Here are some common problems and what it means if it happens to your peony.

Curling Leaves

Leaves curling isn't the worst-case scenario for a peony, but it likely means water intake is off. Stressing a plant can happen in a particularly humid summer season. Watering your peonies should correct this issue if you continue to see typical blooms.

Leaves Turning Black

Botrytis blight is a fungal disease that presents as blackened or rotten stems. It can also wither buds and develop a gray-colored mold near the plant's base. To remedy this, first, you need to remove any affected area on your peony. Next, to prevent this from happening again, you must make sure you balance the peony's water intact and plant it in well-drained soil with good air circulation.

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