The key is planning ahead.
Peonies in Bucket in Garden
Van Staalduinen advises beginning with a hole 30% larger than the actual plant. Fill the hole until the "eyes" (growth buds) are about 1 inch above soil level. Cover the plant with loose soil about 2 inches above that, and water thoroughly.
| Credit: Alison Miksch

Peonies are a spring garden staple. Southerners can 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 requires planning and patience. While many spring-blooming flowers can be planted in beds after the last frost of the season, peonies should be planted 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 they've been planted in the ground during a cold winter. Here's a list of our favorite selections.

Before college football games kick off on a Saturday afternoon, get outside in the morning and start planting your peonies. Choose a spot that gets full sun or afternoon shade and has well-drained soil. Dig a hole about 1 ½ to 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep. Mix in plenty of organic matter into the loose soil in the hole. Position the peony roots in the hole, and fill until the "eyes" (growth buds) are about 1 inch below the soil level. (Planting any deeper could reduce chance of flowering.) Then cover with loose soil about 2 inches above that, and water thoroughly.

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Space peony plants at least 4 feet apart. They need plenty of room to grow. Positioning them too close together could result in leggy plants and disease. Poor flowering occurs when peonies are plant too deep or too shallow; if this is the case, lift them during a dormant season and replant. In the winter, lay down a heavy layer of mulch once the ground begins to freeze in zones that have 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.

Peonies can live for decades, so planning ahead 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.