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Last updated on January 21st, 2020
If you are looking for oversized blooms and a flamboyant yet stunning flowers, there are few plants out there that are more exciting than the peony. Peonies thrive in rich, well-drained areas, with full sun exposure. They grow well in the ground and can be grown in containers if necessary. There are different varieties that fit any garden size but the most popular are herbaceous peonies that die back in autumn and tree peonies which are deciduous and require very little pruning or care.
Types of peonies
There are actually three types of peonies from which to choose.
- The first are herbaceous peonies which die back every winter to ground level but of course, come back again. These are the most popular and require very little maintenance.
- The second are tree peonies which are taller than the herbaceous variety and maintain their frame all winter long more like a shrub. Note that even though these are called tree peonies they are actually shrubs, not fully grown trees. They require next to no pruning with the exception of a little deadheading and cutting back of longer stems when needed.
- The third is intersectional hybrid peonies which are a cross between the first two and somewhat more challenging to come by as they are more specialised.
Where to plant peonies
Plant in full sun in well-drained fertile soil
You should plant your peonies in an area that enjoys full sun with well-drained fertile soil with some well-rotted farm manure dug in when planting. If you plant them in a shaded area with improperly draining soil it will result in waterlogging so this is best avoided no matter how tempting.
If you are growing the herbaceous peonies it is best to have neutral or slightly alkaline soil which makes them perfect for most gardens. If you are growing a tree peony, they seem to do better in slightly more acidic soil, so long as the peonies have a sheltered location such as against a wall or fence.
Planting peonies as bare-root plants or containerised plants
When planting a bare root peony, you need to do it as soon as it arrives as most bare-root plants are ordered via mail order. To that end, be sure to time the arrival of your bare root peonies with the weather and appropriate season. Most peonies do best when planted in Autumn or Spring. Potted peonies can be planted at any time of year with the best time still be autumn or spring if possible.
Don’t plant peonies too deep, this prevents flowering and can cause problems
Before you plant the peonies, add organic matter such as well-rotted farm manure to the soil and mix it well. Always plant your peonies to the same depth as they were in their original containers or if you buy bare-root plants, plant them just under the surface of the soil. If you plant them too deeply they won’t be as floriferous. Fill in the remaining area with your soil mixture and apply a balanced fertiliser if planting in Spring such as fish blood and bone. If planting in Autumn, add the fertiliser the following spring as you don’t want to encourage fresh growth to soon that can be damaged by the frost.
Water it sparingly when first planted. Overwatering new peonies can cause them to fail or rot which is a fairly common problem but one that can be avoided. Water more once established.
Provide extra support to support the flower stems and foliage
If you are growing herbaceous peonies, the flowers can be quite substantial and therefore require extra plant support to keep them upright. You can purchase plenty of support structures that are nestled around the base of the peony and give it support as the plant grows outward and onward. You can also make supports using canes and twine too.
Once we get into autumn and the leaves start to die back for winter, always allow the foliage to fall off naturally, and then remove it from the ground.
Regular care of herbaceous peonies requires a hard pruning effort in Autumn once the foliage has died back. It’s a simple process where you simply cut back the peonies to ground level. You can simply remove spent flowers over summer as they die, cutting just under the flower to a new bud.
Tree peonies need very little pruning but you should remove the spent seed heads in Autumn or remove dead flowers are they apear. Tree peonies can also be pruned to remove water shoots which are long shoots or to control the size of established plants.
Propagating peonies by division
Propagating herbaceous peonies can be done via division in autumn, usually every 4-5 years when they get overcrowded. When ready, cut any faded foliage away and then using a garden fork, lift the plant out of the ground. Carefully remove as much of the garden soil from around the plant before cutting off the different sections at the crown.
You should cut your peonies so that each new section has at least 3 or 4 buds and ample roots for the best chance of getting them to take successfully. When ready, replant the new pieces immediately in your chosen positions.
If you have tree peonies, you can try layering using a pliable stem, but you certainly don’t want to divide it. Layering is a process where you tie down a long stem to the soil to caurse it to root from the stem. This stem can later then be cut to form its own plant with roots where it was tied down to the soil.
The biggest problem you will face with peonies is that of peony wilt. This is a fungus which will cause your stems to rot. You can circumvent this problem by spacing out your peonies adequately to allow better airflow. If you plant more than one, and they are too close together, or too close to other plants, it will reduce air circulation and encourage an environment for fungus.
If you see the fungal spots, dark spots on the leaves, you should remove them immediately and throw them away but do not compost them (learn more about what you can compost here). By removing them when you see them, you can help prevent the spread. If you are cutting back your infected herbaceous peonies in Autumn, remove any foliage from the ground to avoid another infection come spring. Don’t leave the debris to mulch under the plant.
Dealing with ants
If you notice ants crawling all over your peonies, rest assured this is normal. Ants are drawn to peonies and while they might crawl all over, they won’t cause any damage.
Resistant to deer and rabbits
The good news is most peonies are resistant to deer and rabbits as they don’t seem to have a taste for them, so you won’t have to worry about them making their way into your garden.
Recommended peonies to try
There are many varieties of peonies from which to choose.
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Angel Cheeks’ – this is a herbaceous variety that has pink flowers prominent in May and June. At full maturity, it will reach a height of 70cm and makes a spectacular show.
- Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’ – this is one of the more popular herbaceous types known for its lemon petaloids and vibrant pink petals. The flowers make their way in May and June like most other varieties, and at full maturity, it will reach a height a very impressive 90cm (3ft) tall.
- Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ – If you want a herbaceous peony you can use for cutting and displaying indoors, one with heavy aromas, this is it. Known for its pale pink, double flowers, it blooms in May and reaches heights of 90cm and is a very popular variety available in most garden centres.
- Paeonia ‘Mrs William Kelway’ – If you prefer a tree peony this one has semi-double white flowers that show up in May or June. At full maturity, it reaches 120cm (4ft) making it a stunning shrub for filling in spaces and a great choice for containers.
- Paeonia ‘Souvenir de Maxine Cornu’ – Another tree peony this one boasts double yellow and orange flowers that appear in May or June. Unlike other varieties, the flowers on this one hang down and truly draw the eye. At full maturity, it reaches 120cm (4ft) and puts on an amazing show.
Overall, peonies make for excellent floral displays, and you can find different shapes and sizes for the flowers you cultivate based on your garden theme, preference, and colour scheme.