How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Peony Flowers
Peony plants require little maintenance as long as they are planted properly and establish themselves; they do not respond well to transplanting.
They’re hardy to Zone 3 and grow well as far south as Zones 7 and 8. In most of the country, the rules for success are simply full sun and well-drained soil. Peonies even relish cold winters, because they need chilling for bud formation.
Peonies make fine sentinels lining walkways and a lovely low hedge. After its stunning bloom, the peony’s bushy clump of handsome glossy green leaves lasts all summer, and then turns purplish or gold in the fall, as stately and dignified as any shrub.
In mixed borders, peonies bloom with columbines, baptisias, and veronicas, and combine well with irises and roses. Plant white peonies with yellow irises and a froth of forget-me-nots; set off pink peonies with blue Nepeta or violets.
When to Plant Peonies
- Plant peonies in the fall if possible. Plant them a few weeks before the first fall frost (in late September and October in most of North America, and even later in the southern U.S.). If you must move an established plant, this is also the best time.
- Peonies should be settled into place before the first hard fall frost. Find your local frost dates here.
- It’s possible to plant peonies in the spring, but spring-planted peonies just don’t do as well, generally; they lag about a year behind those planted in the fall.
- If planting in the spring, plant as soon as the soil is workable (i.e., no longer frozen). While there’s still a risk of frost, place a 1 to 2 inch layer of mulch over the planting area. When temperatures begin to warm, remove this mulch (a thin layer may be left to help with moisture retention).
How to Plant Peonies
- Grow peonies in deep, fertile, humus-rich, moist soil that drains well. Soil pH should be neutral.
- The soil will benefit from the addition of organic material in the planting hole. If the soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost. Incorporate about 1 cup of bonemeal into the soil. Tamp soil firmly. Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.
- Peonies are not fussy, but choose your location wisely, as they resent disturbance. Provide shelter from strong winds. Plant away from trees or shrubs as peonies don’t like to compete for food and moisture. Space them three to four feet apart for good air circulation.
- Peonies like full sun, and though they can manage with half a day, they bloom best in a sunny spot.
- Peonies are usually sold as bare-root tubers with three to five eyes, divisions of a three- or four-year-old plant.
- Dig a generous-sized hole, about two feet deep and two feet across in well-drained soil in a sunny spot. If the soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost. Incorporate about one cup of bonemeal into the soil. Tamp it firmly.
- Set the root so the eyes face upward on top of the firmed soil, placing the root just 2 inches below the soil surface. (In southern states, choose early-blooming varieties, plant them about an inch deep, and provide some shade.)
- Don’t plant too deep! In most of the country, the peony’s eyes (buds) should be no deeper than 1-½ to 2 inches below the soil line.
- Then, backfill the hole, taking care that the soil doesn’t settle and bury the root deeper than 2 inches.
- Water thoroughly.
Peonies thrive on benign neglect. Unlike most perennials, they don’t need to be dug and divided.
- Spare the fertilizer. Work the soil well before you plant, mixing in a little fertilizer, and that should be enough.
- If your soil is poor, the time to apply fertilizer (bonemeal, compost, or well-rotted manure) is early summer, after the peonies have bloomed and you have deadheaded. Don’t fertilize more than every few years.
- Help the stems. If peonies have any structural weakness, it is their stems, which are sometimes not strong enough to support their gigantic blossoms. Consider three-legged metal peony rings that allow the plant to grow through the center of the rings.
- Deadhead peony blossoms as soon as they begin to fade, cutting to a strong leaf so that the stem doesn’t stick out of the foliage. Cut the foliage to the ground in the fall to avoid any overwintering disease.
- Don’t smother peonies with mulch. Where cold temperatures are severe, for the first winter after planting you can mulch VERY loosely with pine needles or shredded bark. Remove mulch in the spring.
Many gardeners wonder why so many ants crawl on the peony buds. They are eating nectar in exchange for attacking bud-eating pests. Never spray the ants; they’re helping you nurture peonies to bloom!
Luckily, peonies are also one of many deer-resistant plants you can grow in your garden.
- ‘Early Scout’: very early, red single flowers
- ‘Firelight’: very early, pale-pink single
- ‘Karl Rosenfield’: midseason double with large crimson blossoms
- ‘Norma Volz’: midseason large, white, fully double flower
- ‘Elsa Sass’: late-season double with pure-white, camellia-like flowers
Wit & Wisdom
The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.
–Henry Mitchell, American writer (1923-93)
Peonies are said to symbolize a happy life and a happy marriage. See more flower meanings here.
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