Peonies are one of the most beautiful choices for adding vibrant color to your garden. You would think that for such an elegant and showy flower, it would be difficult to grow peonies. But they are actually quite easy to plant and raise.
Whether you’re interested in a herbaceous type for a cut garden or the durability of a tree peony for a long-lasting display, this guide can help you make your peonies thrive.
Best varieties of peonies
There are three main types peonies to consider when deciding what to grow in your garden. The three varieties are herbaceous, intersectionaland tree. Most people choose herbaceous peonies because they produce large flowers with shiny petals and they bloom for a long time.
Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) die to the ground in the fall after flowering and reappear with new stems in the spring.
‘Hot Chocolate’ has dark red flowers, while ‘Pink Cameo’ has massive, fragrant pink flowers. ‘Pillow Talk’ has medium pink puff flowers perfect for cutting. If you prefer single flowers (those with fewer petals), ‘Miss America’ is a lovely white option.
Tree peonies (Paeonia sect. Moutan) are impressive plants that can reach about 1.20 meters in height and bloom from early April to late May. They don’t have quite the same impressive display as the herbaceous types, but they don’t die back after flowering. The woody stem and foliage remain until winter when the leaves fall.
‘Dutchess of Kent’ is a vigorous grower with bright pink-red flowers. ‘Shirley Temple’ has pretty pink flowers and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is a full, bushy perennial.
Intersectional or itoh peonies are a little more expensive as they are not yet as common. But they are catching up. It is a cross between a tree and herbaceous peonies, with a woody stem and large, abundant flowers. They bloom later in the year.
‘Sonoma Sun’ has sunny yellow petals with a hint of red and ‘Watermelon Wine’ has bright purple flowers. ‘Love Affair’ is pure white with single flowers.
How to plant peonies
The first thing you need to think about when growing peonies is where you are going to plant them in your garden. Peonies like to be kept in well-lit, well-ventilated areas. You need to make sure the location has at least six hours of sun exposure per day.
If you don’t give your peonies enough light, the flowers won’t bloom and you won’t be able to enjoy the pretty, colorful petals.
This plant needs well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 6.5-7.0. It’s also possible to grow peonies in light clay or sandy soil, but you’ll need to work in plenty of well-rotted compost to loosen the soil or improve water retention.
If you choose to buy seedlings, the job is quite easy. Simply dig a hole twice as wide and about the same depth as the pot the plant is growing in. Remove the seedling from the container and gently place it in the hole.
Fill around with fresh soil and water well. If you choose to use supports like a trellis or cage to hold heavy flower heads upright during the growing season, now is the time to put them in place.
Once the peonies begin to bloom, it becomes more difficult to adjust or put up support.
Peonies can be grown from seed, but keep in mind that some hybrids are sterile or won’t grow from seed. If you want a hybrid, it is better to buy a seedling in a store. Itoh peonies are sterile. Seed-grown plants take about five years to fully mature.
You can harvest the seeds once the pod is fully open and exposed. Plant the seeds a quarter inch deep in prepared soil in early fall. If you don’t get any rain for the next few weeks, be sure to keep the soil moist.
Seedlings should emerge the following spring.
Caring for peonies
Water is essential to maintaining the health of peonies, which means you need to be vigilant about soil moisture levels and how dry the plant is. Peonies need about an inch or two of water each week.
If you don’t have a rain gauge to determine how much rain your area receives, just stick your finger in the ground. If it seems dry at your second joint, add water.
Add mulch to prevent weeds from growing and to help the soil retain moisture.
Continuous-release all-purpose fertilizer should be applied once in the spring before bloom and once in the summer after bloom, when your plants could benefit from additional nutrients.
Alternatively, cover the plants with a little well-rotted manure or compost once a month during the growing season.
In addition to feeding your plant, it is also necessary to prune peonies from time to time. This mainly applies to tree peonies.
Cutting dead or diseased branches is especially important, but you can also prune a little to create a nice shape. Do this at the end of winter when the buds have started to swell.
Herbaceous peonies need to be stunned, but otherwise you don’t need to prune them. Remove dead leaves from the ground in the fall.
Common diseases and pests to watch out for
Peonies are quite healthy, but like all plants, they have a few pests and diseases that could attack them.
Many gardeners have trouble with ants visiting their peonies because the sweet scent attracts these insects. Ants do no harm to your plant and they can be beneficial, so don’t bother removing them.
If you decide to cut and bring your flowers indoors, simply hold them upside down and shake them gently. If you cut the flowers into buds, simply rinse them under running water.
Unlike ants, thrips actually harm your peony plant. These tiny little insects like to hide in petals and foliage, causing discoloration, distorted foliage and necrotic areas. Head over to our guide to find out how to deal with them.
Leaf node and root (Meloidogyne hapla) nematodes are a huge problem in some parts of the world. They can affect up to a fifth of all nursery plants. Leaf nematodes cause leaf curling and blackening. Root-knot nematodes cause plants to wilt and die.
Either can prevent your flowers from forming.
To find out how to identify and control them, see our article.
One of the most common diseases when growing peonies is botrytis blight (Botrytis paeoniae). This condition is a fungal disease that is most prevalent in soil. However, this normally happens when the plant is weak and the weather is particularly humid.
Botrytis can also spread from other plants if they are infected with this disease. Therefore, it is good to keep an eye out for any signs of this disease when checking your plants.
The main signs of botrytis are:
- Gray mold on shoots
- Brown buds and stems
- leaf spot
- Drop petals
The best thing to do is to cut off infected areas as soon as you spot them. You can also use a copper-based fungicide on your plant to make sure the infection hasn’t spread and won’t spread further in the future.
A product that contains the beneficial mushroom Unocladium oudemansii(strain U3) is also very effective.
Peony leaf stain
Peony leaf spot is another common disease found on these plants. This type of infection is also a fungal disease.
It is caused by Cladosporium paeoniae and creates shiny purple-brownish spots or streaks on the leaves, which are the main sign to look out for.
Good air circulation is essential. Keep your plants well spaced and pruned. As much as possible, avoid wetting the leaves. Then, in addition, use fungicides to control it.
If you want to harvest your own flowers instead of spending hundreds of dollars on cut flowers, growing peonies will give you an endless supply of fresh bouquets!
To harvest peony flowers, cut them barely open or even large buds and place them in a vase. It is ideal to cut the stem in the morning when the stems are the plumpest petals and full of water.
Alternatively, you can cut the flowers and store them in a vase in your fridge so they are ready to take to a party or give to someone on their birthday.
If given the proper growing conditions and well cared for, these plants can bloom for 100 years!
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