How To Grow And Care For Peonies

The key to beautiful blooms is planning ahead of time.

Peonies in Bucket in Garden
Photo: Alison Miksch

Peonies are a spring garden staple. Southerners usually expect the shrubs to come alive with pops of pastel petals around Mother's Day. Disclaimer: These beauty queens are anything but low-maintenance. Planting peonies require planning and patience. While you can plant many spring-blooming flowers in beds after the last frost of the season, you should wait to plant peonies way ahead of time in the fall. (Peonies won't tolerate procrastinating gardeners. For the last-minute spring planters, don't sleep on these showstoppers.) Peonies thrive in spring when planted in the ground during a cold winter. Peonies are generally not considered invasive, as it takes careful planning and maintenance for these flowers to bloom. If ingested, peonies are toxic to both people and animals.

Plant Attributes

  • Common Name: Peony, Garden Peony
  • Botanical Name: Paeonia lactiflora
  • Family: Paeoniaceae
  • Plant Type: Perennial, Shrub, Herbaceous, Tree
  • Mature Size: 2-6 ft. tall, 2-6 ft. wide
  • Sun Exposure: Full
  • Soil Type: Well-drained, Rich
  • Soil pH: Slightly Acidic (6.5-7.0)
  • Bloom Time: Spring, Summer
  • Flower Color: Red, Pink, Orange, Yellow, Purple, White
  • Hardiness Zones: Zones 3-9 (USDA)
  • Native Area: North America, Europe, Asia
  • Toxicity: toxic to pets, toxic to people

Peony Care

Peonies can live for decades, so planning and putting in effort on the front end will pay off. But be patient—you probably won't see blooms during the first year. It usually takes two to three years for peonies to flower. Choose a spot with full sun or afternoon shade and well-drained soil. Dig a hole about one to two feet wide and one foot deep. Mix plenty of organic matter into the loose soil in the hole. Position the peony roots in the spot, and fill until the "eyes" (growth buds) are about one inch below the soil level. (Planting any deeper could reduce the chance of flowering.) Then cover with loose soil about two inches above that, and water thoroughly.


Plant peonies in an area that receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight daily. These flowers don't hold up well in strong winds, so protect them from storms. Peonies are more susceptible to fungal diseases without proper sunlight and may produce few or less impressive blooms.


Don't plant peonies in a wet area. Be sure the soil is well-draining and has a slightly acidic or neutral pH. (Tree peonies prefer somewhat more alkaline soil.) Plant in an area rich with organic matter, or amend your soil with the proper nutrients to help set these flowers up for success.


Peonies are not drought-resistant, so make sure to water your flowers weekly—Ideally, plants will receive about one or two inches of rain. If you live in an area where it does not routinely rain, then be sure to water plants to maintain moist but well-drained soil. Never water-log the roots. Wait until the soil has completely drained before watering again.

Temperature and Humidity

Peonies need a period of cold weather to induce dormancy. Also, peonies bloom best in areas that don't have too much humidity or heat during the blooming season. These flowers bloom early in temperatures with the extended summer heat.


In the winter, lay down a heavy layer of mulch once the ground begins to freeze in zones with a hard frost. For annual blooms, fertilize peonies twice each year. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring when fresh shoots start sprouting and repeat in the fall.

WATCH: 12 Surprising Facts All Peony Enthusiasts Should Know

Types of Peonies

Here is a selection of some of our favorite peony varieties that grow well in the South:

  • 'Festiva Maxima': Red-flecked white blossoms that are Southern favorites
  • 'Coral Charm': An early-blooming peony producing notably large flowers
  • 'Kansas': Long-blooming, a reliable selection that thrives in full sun
  • 'Bartzella': Heat tolerant with a long season of vibrant flowers
  • 'Rimpo': A tree peony with red petals encircling showy gold stamens
  • 'Elsa Sass': Intensely fragrant flowers that come late in the season


Prune peonies after it blooms with clean pruners. Cut dead stems or diseased stems to just below the infected area. Trim branches to maintain the plant's shape, but overall, peonies do not need a lot of pruning. Deadheading flowers also promote new growth, so once the flowers begin to fade, cut back to the ground. Tree peonies require similar pruning, but don't remove the woody part.

Propagating Peonies

Peonies do not need to divide the same as other perennials. However, dividing the root clump is a way to propagate new growth. Wait until the peony is matured (at least three or four years) before dividing. Here is how to propagate peonies by dividing the root:

  1. After peonies are finished blooming for the season, typically in the fall, start by pruning the foliage to the ground.
  2. Next, dig up the root clump. Be mindful not to sever the roots and remove excess dirt.
  3. Gently separate the roots so that each section you plan to plant has at least three "eyes." Cut sections with a clean, sharp knife.
  4. After separating the roots, remove divisions and leave the large, fleshy roots.
  5. Immediately plant the divided roots and the "eyes" one to two inches below the top of the soil. It can take many years before peonies are root-bound and blooming.

How to Grow Peonies From Seed

  1. Plant ripen seeds as soon as they are available—If using dry seeds, plant in the autumn.
  2. Plant seeds a few inches below the top of the soil outdoors in an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight daily. You can also start seeds indoors.
  3. Make sure to mulch soil to keep it warm throughout the winter and to provide the necessary nutrients.
  4. Expect to see sprouts in the spring after planting. Some seeds will take longer than others to be root-bound.

Potting and Repotting Peonies

Peonies need repotting if you purchase them from a garden supplies store or another vendor. Begin by digging a hole at least 30 percent larger than the existing plant. Fill the hole until the "eyes" (growth buds) are about one inch above soil level. Cover the plant with loose organic compost or peat moss soil about two inches above that, and water thoroughly.

You want to space the peony plants at least four feet apart. They need plenty of room to grow. Positioning them too close together could result in leggy plants and disease.


Peonies do not require too much protection from winter's low temperatures. Peonies need around six weeks of cold weather to induce dormancy to replenish and bloom in the spring. To add an extra layer of protection, be sure to prune peonies to the ground after the bloom period. Only remove the foliage and branches. Keep the "eyes" because this is how the peony will grow the following year. Additionally, mulching the roots of younger peony plants can help protect them from the dropping temperatures.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Botrytis is a type of fungal rot that impacts peonies' growth. It can infect the leaves and stems, resulting in a black or grey mold growing. Remove the infected areas so it does not spread. If a leaf is wilting or blackening, then it must be removed. This issue usually appears in the spring or during a rainy season when the peony does not have enough time to dry.

Powdery mildew is another fungus that appears on peony leaves. It leaves a white residue on the leaves that can be treated by gently washing the leaves with water or a fungal spray.

In woody peonies, rabbits might attack the branches during the winter. A mesh wiring can prevent animals from eating the wood if necessary.

How to Get Peonies to Bloom

Peonies bloom in the spring or early summer. Deadheading flowers can promote new growth if the blooms begin to fade. Typically, peonies have very showy blooms, so if you do not see the results you want, ensure they receive enough sunlight and water the plant correctly. Competition from surrounding plants can also prevent peonies from blooming.

If poor flowering occurs during its blooming season, it can be that the plant is too deep in the soil or too shallow. To fix this problem, dig up the peony during its dormant season and replant it appropriately.

Common Problems With Peonies

Curling Leaves

When peonies have curling leaves, this signifies mismanaged watering or an insect infestation. The soil should be well-drained, and the first two inches of soil should be dry. Protect peonies from strong winds, but plant them in a location where these plants will receive good air circulation. If insects are present, use a horticultural oil to spray on the leaves. Occasionally, peony leaves will curl when exposed to prolonged hot weather, so be sure to water during these times.

Leaves Turning Brown

If you notice peony leaves turning brown or spots start forming, this signifies leaf spots. Leaf spot is a fungal disease, primarily causing superficial damage, but if left untreated can develop into blight. Blight can cause sprouts to fall over or different fungi to grow. At the first sign of disease, treat peonies with a fungicide spray. (Spray to prevent these fungi from forming in early spring).

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