Peonies

Taken in my garden, late spring 2007.

Credit: Michele Rose
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Botanical name: Paeonia

Plant type: Flower

USDA Hardiness Zones: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Sun exposure: Full Sun, Part Sun

Soil type: Loamy

Soil pH: Neutral


Flower color: Red, Pink, Yellow, White

Bloom time: Spring

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 outrageously beautiful in bloom, with lush foliage all summer long. These perennials may live longer than you do—some have been known to thrive for 100 years. The plants require little maintenance as long as they are planted properly and establish themselves; they do not respond well to transplanting.

Peonies take your breath away every spring. 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.

Planting

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Plant peonies in the fall: in late September and October in most of the country, and even later in the South. (If you must move an established plant, this is the time.)
  • Peonies should be settled into place before the first hard frost. Spring-planted peonies just don't do as well, experts agree; they generally lag about a year behind those planted in the fall.
  • 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.)
  • Then backfill the hole, taking care that the soil doesn't settle and bury the root deeper than 2 inches.
  • Water thoroughly.

Tip: Don't plant too deep! In most of the country, the peony's eyes (buds) should be no deeper than 1-1/2 to 2 inches below the soil line!

Care

Like children, young peonies take time to develop. They usually need a few years to establish themselves, bloom, and grow.

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 fertilizer 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.

Pests

Peonies are generally very hearty. They are prone to Verticillium wilt, ringspot virus, tip blight, stem rot, Botrytis blight, left blotch, Japanese beetle, and nematodes.

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.

Recommended Varieties

Peonies are spring-bloomers, but you can plan your garden for a successive display of flowers from mid-May to early June. Here are some choices:

  • '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

Tip: Peonies make wonderful cut flowers, lasting more than a week. For best results, cut long stems when the buds are still fairly tight.

Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the corner and proceed to worship.
–Alice Harding, The Book of the Peony

E-Cards

Credit: Catherine Boeckmann

Send a free e-card of a glorious peony. Click here to see more peony images in our e-card gallery.

Comments

black buds

By Anonymous

I just bought a new peony from a local nursery and noticed it has black buds. The rest of the plant looks healthy. What is the problem if any?

The buds have dried up.

By Almanac Staff

The buds have dried up. Sometimes when peonies sit in a container too long they start to suffer. You may not get any blooms this year but your plant should be OK if you planted it in a good spot in your garden.

pulled up great grandmas pionies

By Anonymous

My son surprised me and started cleaning up the garden beds as I have been working 50 hours a week. He dug up all of my heirloom peonies and I do not know if I can save them. They had budded but not bloomed and I need advice please? Thank you

Plant them as soon as

By Almanac Staff

Plant them as soon as possible. Hopefully they'll still have enough roots to survive.

stunted peony tree / bush

By Anonymous

We have a small peony tree / bush which produces small sparse flowers which never open. I've always had a green thumb with indoor plants, but am lost as far as how to make my outdoor flowering plants thrive (roses too!). any help is appreciated, thanks!

Peony - moving

By Anonymous

I have huge old peony I must move. Physically I can manage moving four pieces, with a struggle so I have decided to prepare four large fertilized holes and make the move quickly as soon as water has drained out. Then plant them and fertilize them. I will water the plants and cover them for a few days to retain moisture if it is hot and sunny, wish me luck. 27th April 13.

Already established plants

By Anonymous

Planted our Peonies last fall, All have sprouted up nicely, We're in the process of beautifying the surrounding gardens. Is it ok to use landscapers cloth around the plants and bark. Would like all the gardens
to match but am worried about disturbing them very much and i don't want the bark to cause problems with the plants.

Oops...I accidentally cut my shoots

By Anonymous

I was weed wacking near my spring shoots of peonies and accidentally cut some shoots off. Will this kill the plant or just stunt them for this season? I hope I have not killed it because it is my only pink plant. :-( Please help!!! I live in lower Michigan and the weather is beginning to change to spring. (Finally)
Thanks.

very old plants

By Anonymous

I have some very old established peonies that i was lucky enough to inherit when we purchased our 95 year old house. The neighbor who grew up next door thinks they are at least 60 years old. They are still blooming beautifully but I have noticed the roots are lifting up out of the beds - the roots are black in appearance - should I re-cover with soil? I have 4 large clumps that produce litterally hundreds of flowers every year and I love them!

If you are going to re-plant

By Natalia

If you are going to re-plant it this fall. May I send you Fed/ex label if you would not mind sending me some roots.
Please let me know at zhuk.natalia@gmail.com. Thank you!

Cover the roots with soil

By Almanac Staff

Cover the roots with soil mixed with compost. In the fall you may want to dig up the plant and replant it a few inches lower in the soil. Add some compost to the hole before replanting.

How many blooms?

By Anonymous

My plants have two blooms. After I cut off the dead heads, will I get more blooms on the plants until summer?

I don't think so. Peonies are

By Anonymous

I don't think so. Peonies are a one-time flowers a year.

New growth, cold temps

By Anonymous

We have had some warm weather and my peonies have new growth from 6' to 18" depending on the plant. We are suppose to have 33 degree temps for the next couple of nights. Do I need to cover the new growth to protect them from possible frost or can the new growth tolerate these temps?

peonies and cold snaps

By Almanac Staff

Whether you need to cover your plants or not depends on several factors, such as plant health, location, etc. If the temperatures remain above freezing, it should probably not be a problem, especially if the actual flower buds are not forming yet. However, if you want to play it safe, some gardeners do cover their plants with a row cover, plastic pots, plastic garbage cans, or similar to help with brief cold snaps in spring (do not use clear plastic). With light cold snaps in spring, young leaves may show some cold damage, but they usually recover. If the cold snap is more severe, then the plant may suffer. Tree peonies are more sensitive to cold than herbaceous types. Those plants that have significant new growth may show more damage than plants just emerging.

Separating peonies

By Anonymous

My peonies seem to be spreading in the ground in my flower bed. I am curious if they need to be separated at some point. They are planted far enough apart but I notice each year they grow up & bloom further out than the yer before. Not sure if I'm explaining this well enough. Thanks.

If the peony are in the bush

By Anonymous

If the peony are in the bush form, you can easily cut the the peony clumps into two. In a sense, you have another clump to plant and spread the peony bush into two bushes. If you have a peony tree, don't separate the tree.

If your peonies are spaced

By Almanac Staff

If your peonies are spaced correctly, they don't usually need to be divided for 10 to 15 years. You'll know if they are crowded because they won't bloom well. But if the clump becomes crowded, division of the clump is recommended. You'll have to dig up the plant and separate the tubers.

peony health

By Anonymous

I planted my peonies last fall and they really started growing fast. Went thru the winter well and now a couple are turning purple and one looks wilted. Should I cut them back or leave them alone? I'm in 77856.

Water the peonies and wait to

By Almanac Staff

Water the peonies and wait to see if they will perk up. Peonies need a cold period in the winter and usually die back and go dormant before new growth starts in the spring.

peonies

By izzybee16

Can you grow them in containers?

Late March Care

By Anonymous

Hello,
I live in Oklahoma and moved into a new house last May. When I got here the flower bed was full of beautiful Peony. This year I've been concerned about what I need to do to get this kind of result again, it is my first time caring for Peony. It is now late March and I noticed when I cleaning out the beds that there are little pink tips poking out of the ground in several spots. I uncovered them of leaves and other debris, should I have? I just don't want to uncover them too early and for them to get too cold or something. Is there anything else I need to do at this point? It's hard for me to believe that these little pink tips will grow into those big beautiful blooming plants that were there last year within a couple of months. Just wondering if this sounds like a normal stage for them to be in at this point in the year. We've had a fairly cold Spring so far. Thanks!

It's normal for peonies to

By Almanac Staff

It's normal for peonies to show some growth in early spring. Spread some organic, all-purpose fertilizer around your plants or top-dress with compost for continued blooms.

Digging up peonies

By Anonymous

I am moving from my home and decided I would try to dig up my peonies to take with me. I live in Connecticut. I dug them up, and now wonder how I should store them until I move in a month. Should I just put them in a pot with potting soil or store them loose in a paperbag with peat moss? I know I am taking a chance that they may die.

Store the bulbs in a

By Almanac Staff

Store the bulbs in a container of moist sawdust or sand in a cool dark location. Don't let the bulbs dry out.

Zone 8 California, planting times!

By Anonymous

Hi, I bought some bare root Sarah bernhardts, that just recently came into my local store at the beginning of the month (its towards the end of March now!). I wanted to plant them early morning tomorrow, but is this a bad idea? Since they're supposed to be planted in fall! Why would a nursery sell bulbs after the planting season, and what do you suggest I do with them? Will they still be alive by this fall if I decide to plant them this year? Any advice on the best course of a tion would be wonderful! Thanks for your help, I'm still a novice gardener and I aspire towards a full garden of peonies!

Fall is the best time to

By Almanac Staff

Fall is the best time to plant peonies but you can plant them now. Make sure to follow the advice above about planting.

cutting peonies in the sping

By Anonymous

This is my first year in a house with peonies in the garden. I didn't know I was supposed to cut them to the ground in the fall. Now it's March. Should I cut now???

peonies

By Almanac Staff

Typically, you would cut the peonies down to the ground after a frost. So do it now before the new growth starts for this year. Thanks for your interest in The Old Farmer's Almanac.

not blooming

By Anonymous

We have had our peonies in for about 11 yrs. we only get 2-3 blooms on them every spring. There are 3 that never bloom. Is it true that there are male & female peonies and the male does not bloom?

they get lots of sunshine and plenty of water. Thanks for your help' We don't fertilize very often

Thanks for the helpful

By Anonymous

Thanks for the helpful tips!
What should I do if I planted them too deep? They've been in the current location for 2 seasons.

You can try to very gently

By Almanac Staff

You can try to very gently lift the tubers with a spade and fill the hole with soil and compost.

Conflicting info on planting time for Peonies

By Anonymous

Hi, I just purchased 3 boxes(12 total bulbs) from Sams Club. They are Sarah Bernhardt and Karl rosenfeld, nursery supplier name Van Zyvenden. The instructions are clear and repetitive on the box that they should be planted in the spring after last frost, which is in mid April in my zone 6 (25801 Zip). However, not just the very reliable Almanac, but nearly all of the research I have done strongly suggests they should be planted in the fall. It says they are guaranteed to grow, although I would hate to know what is involved with executing that....was wondering if I should just try it in April, (if so, should i keep the bulbs in the refrigerator until then? its late feb now)or maybe store the bulbs until fall, or.. maybe try to start them now in some large pots and transplant them in the fall? Or should i just cut my losses and just return the unopened boxes for a refund now, and try again in the fall??? Thank you!

Conflicting planting time.

By Anonymous

I also bought the bulbs at SAMs Club and followed the directions and planted in the spring. I live in southeast Virginia. The first two years I was very upset they came up but no blooms. I worried I had planted them too deep. Last year they bloomed beautifully. Each plant had about 5 blooms each. I am so excited ....this year the buds are too numerous to count. I am looking forward to fresh cut flowers this Spring. My advise just be patient . Good luck!

peony planting

By Almanac Staff

Bare-root peonies are best planted in the fall because it allows some feeder roots to form, helping the plant to get a good start in spring. Planting bare-root peonies in spring will stress the plants more, and they will take longer to establish. You might try planting them in April, as directed, and pamper them as much as you can to help them get off to a good start. Keep in mind that peonies may take a year or two to start flowering; those that are stressed might take longer. Be sure to plant at the proper depth (so that the eyes are 1/2 to 2 inches deep, but no more)--too deep, and they will not flower. Container-grown peonies can be planted in spring with greater success than bare-root.

If you do want to store the peonies for a bit before planting, you can place them in a cool (around 40 to 45 F), dark, dry area, such as a root cellar. Be sure to keep them above freezing, but not so warm as to encourage sprouting.

Good luck!

My peony has never bloomed it's about 8 years old

By Anonymous

My peony is around 8 years old it has never bloomed. I bought it as a bareroot plant and planted it in a shady area because I live in the Central Valley in California we get to 110 degrees in summer. I dug it up in the fall the first season. I planted the peony in a large pot and there it has remained.I have become curious to up-turn the pot to look at the roots. It's mid-January is it safe to examine the condition of my peony.

Success with peonies in

By Almanac Staff

Success with peonies in containers will depend on how large your container is and what winter conditions are like (they need a freezing period).
Peonies have very large root systems and need good drainage. Peonies are also heavy feeders.
When you remove the roots from the pot shake off the soil to find the eyes (buds). If the roots seems to be crowded in the pot you may want to find a bigger container. When replanting the peony place the roots in the soil so that the eyes are 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. If you plant them any deeper they will not bloom.

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