How to Plant, Grow and Care For Flowering Peonies
Are you thinking of growing some peonies in your garden this season? These flowering favorites are beloved by gardeners all over the world. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner takes you through each step of growing beauriful peonies in your garden as well as their care.
There are very few flowers that can rival the huge distinctive blossom of a peony. It is the prized plant in a garden. When peonies are in bloom everything else in the garden takes a back seat.
Peonies are great at teaching us patience. They take years to get established and start blooming. They don’t like change. Patience and time are the keys to gigantic and beautiful blooms, and there are no shortcuts.
Peonies also won’t submit to our whims. Yes, gardeners have been able to manipulate and change the bloom times of many different flowers to suit our bouquet needs. But peonies will only bloom in spring. They cannot be forced to bloom outside their natural window. And they can’t be tricked into blooming twice in a season.
There are so many varieties of peonies and they all come in various colors. There really is a peony out there to suit everyone’s preferences. Once established, they are a relatively easy perennial to maintain, and they can live for a hundred years. Let’s dive into how to grow and maintain peonies.
Peony Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Native area Europe, Asia, Western North America
Hardiness Zone 3-9; variety dependent
Exposure Full sun, partial sun
Plant Spacing 3′
Planting Depth Exactly to the crown of the plant
Height 24″ (up t 5′ for tree peonies)
Watering requirements – Low, once established
Pests Aphids, spider mites
Diseases Stem rot, powdery mildew
Soil Type light, hummus, well-draining
Soil pH Neutral
Plant with Roses, allium, iris, hydrangea
Peonies have a long and rich history. They have been cultivated for thousands of years. They pop up in Greek mythology. The name ‘peony’ being attributed to a student of Asclepius named Paeon. He was a physician to the gods who cured Pluto with the milky juice that comes from a peony root.
In China, they can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (7th century). The flower adorns art and tapestry from this period. They were also breeding peonies in this time period.
Peonies over the years have always been seen as a symbol of beauty and femininity. The large beautiful blossom of a peony is delicate and soft. They stand the test of time and continue to be a favorite in the garden.
There are 33 species of peonies and hundreds of varieties. Then there are 3 main types of peonies.
Herbaceous peonies are perennial plants that will die to the ground every fall and regrow in the spring. They have a range of flower types, from single, semi double, to double flowers. This is the peony that most gardeners think of when talking about the plant.
Tree peonies are woody deciduous shrubs. They can grow up to 5′ tall and 5′ wide under ideal conditions. They bloom goblet shaped flowers and are hardy in zones 4-9. However, I live in a borderline zone 4 area and I have no luck with varieties. Zone 5-9 is probably more accurate. If you are in zone 4, mulch it in the winter.
Finally, intersectional peonies, or itoh peonies, are the hybrid of tree and herbaceous peonies. They are perennial and die back, but they have sturdier stalks that do not require staking.
They have lovely goblet shaped flowers that come in a variety of stunning colors. Again, if you live in zone 3-4 I recommend mulching them in the winter (just using leaves from the trees is fine) to protect them over the winter.
There are a number of ways to obtain and add peonies into your garden. Your budget and amount of time you want to commit to propagating a new plant will determine which method is best for you.
I am starting out with the easiest method of propagating a peony. Have someone else do it for you and purchase a peony plant. You can go to a local garden center or nursery and pick up a peony plant.
I like going to a local nursery as opposed to a large garden center. This depends on what you are looking for. Large garden centers will be cheaper, but oftentimes they won’t have exact varieties. At a local nursery you should be able to find more rare and exotic varieties.
You can also purchase the roots through garden catalogs and websites. This is a great way to find very specific varieties that you can’t track down in stores. Make sure you are purchasing from reputable seed/bulb companies to ensure quality.
I am only going to briefly touch on this one. Yes, you can grow peonies from seeds. After the flower has bloomed and the petals have fallen away there will be seed pods. You can snip off these seed pods and let them open and collect the seeds. These seeds will not be a true replica of the mother plant. Often times they will resemble the plant, but usually, they are not as spectacular as the original.
The seed will take 3-5 years to actually produce a flowering peony. So it requires a lot of patience. You will first need to germinate the seed. Place it in a tray with a seed starter mix and cover lightly. Then place a bag or dome lid on top to keep the moisture in.
Keep evenly moist and in a warm area (like on top of the fridge). They will take about 3 months to sprout. Then they will need to be kept in the cold. Just above freezing. A crisper drawer of the fridge works. They will need to be left in the cold for up to 4 months. Until spring essentially.
After this, if the seedlings make it, they are ready to be planted in the garden. Make sure they are kept watered through the first season until they can establish. If they survive you might start seeing blooms in the 3rd season. It’s a long process. I only recommend starting from seed if you are intrigued by the seed starting process.
You can also propagate through division. Although it might be difficult to find someone willing to divide their peony plant. They do not like to be disturbed once they are planted. If you propagate through division, expect delayed blooms for a season or two after.
I always say beware of the plants your neighbors offer. They will give all the things that are over taking their gardens, but never the things that stay in their place.
Anyways, if you do come across someone is willing to divide, or you want to divide one of your own it is best done in fall. Peonies have large tap roots. If it is a very established plant it will be difficult to dig up.
Slip the shovel in all around the plant and try to lift it out. Once it is out use a sharp knife, or a sharpened edger to split it. You want to separate pieces so they all have 3 ‘eyes’ or buds. Any less and it will take years to get a bloom. Replant the plant into the soil, add compost. Transplant the other plants into pre dug holes.
Dig the holes much wider than the plant. Full in with a mixture of compost and the original soil. Water the newly divided plant as well as the original very well. The original plant may not bloom the following year. The newly divided peony will also need a year or two to get established and start blooming.
Planting is easy, but there are some very important things to get right in order for them to bloom. Planting depth is one of them. Peonies must be planted exactly at the crown of the plant (where the stem meets the root) in order to bloom. If the soil is covering the crown, your peony may not bloom.
Start by digging a hole twice as deep as your plant and twice or wider. At this time I usually fill the planting hole with water. I then will add a mixture of compost and the existing soil back into the hole so that it is just as deep as the peony. I will sprinkle in some bone meal, or other transplant fertilizer at this time.
Unpot the plant and loosen the roots so they aren’t wrapped around itself and in the shape if the pot. Then place the plant in the hole and make sure the crown is perfectly lined up to the soil line. Fill in with a mixture of compost and the original garden soil. Water in some more.
Keep watering the new plant. I’d start off with daily watering, then every couple days, then after a month or so, weekly.
If possible, plant in early spring or the fall. Also, planting on a cool cloudy day is better than trying to plant on a scorching hot day. If it can’t be avoided, plant in the early morning or late evening to lessen the heat stress on the plant.
How to Grow
Peonies want to stay in the same location for 100+ years, so getting the conditions right is crucial. Here is a list of things your peony will require in order to thrive.
Peonies are considered full sun plants. They require 6+ hours of sun to thrive and bloom to their fullest potential. However, that being said, there is definitely a sweet spot when it comes to sun. They can also be grown in less than ideal conditions, with less blooms.
Peony flowers are very delicate. The quality of sun they receive does make a difference. The hot afternoon sun will cause the blooms to fade at a much faster rate.
Since peony blooms are a short lived blossoms as it is, providing protection from the hot afternoon rays makes a difference. Eastern exposures that are shady in the afternoon are a great place to plant. Or if you can find a spot that offers some dappled shade in the heat of the afternoon. Check the shade patterns of large trees in your garden.
I have seen peonies planted in more shaded locations. If this is your only option, it can be done. You will find they grow much taller and have fewer blooms. Never plant in full shade.
Peonies will perform best in light nutrient rich garden soil. That being said, a peony will grow in anything. I’ve seen them doing their thing in pure clay. But for optimal performance, good soil is important.
The first thing to do is to test your own soil. I recommend for the average home gardener to just test using your eyes, hands, and nose. Grab a handful of your soil. Squeeze the soil in your hand. If the soil stays in a tight ball you have clay soil.
It should crumble back away after it’s squeezed. Look at the soil. It should be a dark brown color. If it is light grey or a dull brown it needs nutrients added. It should smell nice and earthy. It should not have a rotten egg or sour smell.
If you have heavy clay soil, add coconut coir or peat moss to lighten the soil. I dig and till it into the soil to break up the hard clay lumps. Don’t use sand. It might seem like it will loosen the soil, it will basically make concrete when mixed in with clay.
For dull grey soil, add plenty of organic matter. I’d actually recommend adding organic matter. Top dress your beds in the fall. Use compost, aged manure, worm castings, or sea soil.
If your soil has a sour or rotten egg smell, there is most likely a drainage issue. A peony will not survive in waterlogged conditions. I would choose a different location and plant a water loving planting in the boggy area.
Peonies are actually a water wise plant once they are established. They have big long tap roots that reach down deep for water.
However, in the first season or two that they are planted they will need to be watered more often. They are a 100 year investment, so take the time to get them established. The amount of water will depend on the amount of rain your area has been getting.
During hot and dry spells make sure to add some supplemental water. I use a drip hose in my garden that I leave on for 2-3 hours a couple times a week. This ensures deep watering so the peony can develop its long deep roots that make it drought tolerant.
Climate and Temperature
I’m a cold climate gardener. So peonies make me feel smug. Sometimes I think all the gorgeous flowers are out of my zone. But I should be grateful to have the most gorgeous peonies. They thrive in cold weather. Zones 3-9 are ideal.
Itoh and tree varieties need slightly warmer hardiness zones, 4-9. If you do live in a colder climate, mulch them in the fall. I usually just pile leaves on them (I live in zone 3-4).
Peonies can be planted almost anywhere as long as the sun requirement is met. However, planting your peony in a good location will help keep the flowers intact longer.
Pick a sheltered location. My neighbor had their driveway lined with peonies. When we first moved in I was thinking how glorious that was going to look in full bloom. Unfortunately, it never really happened. They did bloom.
But the wind gusts that swept through that open driveway destroyed the blossoms in only a day or two. All I ever saw was petals scattered everywhere. Pick a location that is protected from the wind.
That could be nestled into a garden where other plants provide protection. Against the house or a fence would also work. The flowers are delicate, they don’t hold up well to wind.
Heavy rain will also destroy peonies prematurely. This might be harder to avoid. But if you can plant your peony in an area that provides protection from harsh downpours, their blossoms will remain intact longer.
I do not fertilize peonies. Except for the transplant fertilizer or bone meal that I use when first planting. To add nutrients I top dress my garden beds with organic matter in the fall.
I usually spread some leaves in the bed and then cover them over with a fresh layer of compost or aged manure. Make sure when laying the compost down that you do not cover the crown of your peony. Gently rake the compost away from the base of the plant
If you don’t do this in the fall, not to worry, spring is also a good time to do this.
This doesn’t need to be done every year. I’ve gone a couple years without adding anything. Peonies especially don’t mind.
Peonies do require some maintenance to get the most out of their blooms. The most important garden task you can do during their growth is to cage them. This is especially important for the big fluffy double flowering varieties.
The weight of the flower is so much, the plant will topple under the weight. In the early spring you will need a cage. There are various types you can purchase from garden centers. I like the tomato cage type that have 2 hoops attached to 3 stakes. I place this on the plant early, before it starts growing, then it grows through it and is supported.
This won’t work if you try and put it on after the plant has grown. You will snap the stalks. Bamboo poles and string will work, especially if the plant is already grown. Stake the bamboo poles around the perimeter of your plant then tie the string between the poles. One row along the bottom and a second tier along the top of the stakes to really provide support.
After your peony has bloomed, you will want to deadhead the seed pods. You don’t want your peony to spend its energy producing seed, you want that energy to go back into make stronger roots. Simple clip off the stem of the bloom. I usually snip it all the way down underneath the plant.
In the fall you will want to cut the plant down. This will help prevent fungus from taking hold, as they are particularly vulnerable to fungal disease found in the soil. I’m not a huge advocate for cleaning gardens in the fall.
I usually let everything over winter and clean up in the spring. But peonies are an exception. I always take the time to cut them down and dispose of or compost them. Wait until they completely die out before cutting them. Their foliage turns a nice blushing red color in the fall before dying out.
On to the fun part, there are hundreds of unique varieties. Here are a few factors to consider when choosing a variety. Or you can do as I do and throw out all your good sense when you get to the garden center and go crazy buying plants. Then worry about where they’ll go in the garden later.
This is the most obvious way to shop for a peony. Pick the color you love. Peonies come in a variety of colors. Pink, red, white, and even yellow. Plus all the shades in between.
‘Festiva Maxima’ is a fluffy white double peony variety with flecks of red in the center of the blossom. It’s a popular variety that is also fragrant.
‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is the ultimate pink peony. It has huge balls of fluffy cotton candy pink blooms. This is a late season bloomer that is sure to impress.
‘Red Charm’ is a great example of the perfect ruby red blooming peony. It is a double flowering variety with smaller inner red ruffles and large outer red petals.
‘Coral Charm’ is a unique yellow flowering peony. It’s an early season bloomer and what a way to welcome spring. It’s a semi double flower with dark coral outer petals that fade to a buttery yellow in the center. It has a cool tropical vibe.
‘Bartzella’ is an itoh peony. It has gorgeous yellow flowers with red in the center. It is a unique plant that really shines in a garden. As a bonus, this variety does not need to be staked.
Some peonies have the most wonderful floral scent. If you envision a seating area surrounded by peonies that fill the air with the most delicate fragrance, then choose a peony that has a strong scent. If garden smells aren’t your thing, pick a less scented variety.
‘Duchesse de Nemours’ is a beautiful creamy white double flowering peony. It has a very strong floral scent.
‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’ is a gorgeous semi double flower. It has a dreamy tropical color pink color. The inner petals are more yellow and then they blush to a soft coral pink. They have a light floral scent that isn’t overpowering.
‘Buckeye Belle’ is a red semi double peony with yellow stamens. This gorgeous variety is very popular as it is a beautiful true red color and doesn’t require staking. Red blooming varieties are usually the least fragrant.
For Unique Blossoms
There are a few different blossom types of peonies. Each of them has a different shape, and depending on your goals, one may be better for your garden than the others.
‘Karl Rosenfield’ is a classic double flowering variety. The huge blossoms are stunning balls of scarlet red.
‘Bowl of Beauty’ is an anemone type flower. It features large bright pink guard petals with a mound of fluffy yellow frills of petals in the center. It is one of my personal favorites. ‘Honey Gold’ is another variety with this form. It has large white guard petals and a fluffy yellow interior. It looks like a fried egg.
‘Wild Lactiflora’ is a single flowering variety. It has a single row of pink flowers and a simple yellow center. It’s a classic peony variety that looks great in wild cottage style gardens.
For Differing Bloom Times
Some peonies bloom early in the season, while others will bloom later in the spring. They generally last about 2 weeks, so staggering early, mid and late blooming varieties extend your peony season.
‘Fern Leaf’ peonies are one of the earliest blooming varieties of peony. It features soft ferny feathery foliage and single red flowers all over. It is usually up and blooming before other varieties are even out of the ground.
‘Kansas’ peonies are a great mid season blooming peony. It is a dark fuschia pink double flowering variety. Mid season blooming peonies are the bulk of all varieties. So choose almost any variety you love to fill this role.
‘Felix Crousse’ is considered a late season peony. It is a large deep pink double blooming peony. If you paired this with the mid season ‘Kansas’ peony it would look like one variety that is in constant bloom.
Lots of the large blossomed herbaceous peonies require staking to keep their large delicate blooms up. As I’ve described above in the maintenance section, you will have to cage them in early spring with a tomato cage.
Or you will have to stake and tie them after they have grown to their full height. If you want the large fluffy blossomed plants, this will be necessary. If caging seems like a daunting task to you, opt for a peony that doesn’t require staking.
Tree peonies are woody shrubs and do not require staking. Itoh peonies usually don’t require staking either, because of their sturdy stalks. Some herbaceous peonies, such as ‘Chocolate Soldier’ have smaller upright flowers that usually do not require staking.
Pests and Diseases
Like all plants, peonies do have their fair share of pests and diseases they can succumb to if they are not properly monitored. There are some that they are more likely to deal with compared to others. Let’s take a look at the most common pests and diseases you’ll likely be dealing with during their maintenance.
Thrips are a bad one for peonies because they destroy the most important part of the plant, the flower bud. These tiny pests infest the areas in and around the buds which kills off some buds and will leave others malformed. You can test for thrips by using blue sticky tape. The adult thrips will stick on to the strips.
To eradicate thrips, spray down the leaves and buds with an insecticidal soap, or need oil. This will have to be reapplied as thrips have a very fast life cycle and you will need multiple applications to get ahead of it.
Hoplia beetles chew on light colored flowers in the spring. This makes peonies a prime candidate. They will devour holes in peony flowers. These beetles are big enough to see and hand picking them off of your flowers is the best option. Or shaking the flowers off into a bucket of soapy water.
Ants are not actually a pest for peonies but it’s worth mentioning because many gardeners think they are. I mention this one because you will often see ants on peony plants. There is an old wives tale that they need ants in order to bloom. While that is a myth, they do actually help the plant. Peonies and ants have a symbiotic relationship.
The ants feed on the sticky sap secreted by the flower buds and in turn the ants protect the plant from other flower bud eating pests, like thrips. So don’t mind the ants on your peonies.
Powdery mildew appears as a fine silt like powder that coats the leaves of the plant. This will lead to stunted growth and eventually the death of the plant.
Prevention is best when it comes to dealing with powdery mildew. Make sure your peony is planted in a spot where it is receiving full sun. Also make sure your peony is being watered adequately, but not overly. Also, if you have the choice, opt for drip irrigation.
Overhead sprinklers that get the foliage constantly wet is a breeding ground for powdery mildew. If you are overhead watering, try and do it in the morning as opposed to the evening. This way the foliage doesn’t sit wet overnight. The sun will quickly dry the leaves. Another tip is to make sure you leave a bit of space around the stems of the plant.
This will allow for airflow and will decrease the chance of mildew and rotting. While I do love a group of peonies planted together, leave around 3′ or space between their stems to allow for good airflow.
Now that I’ve talked about prevention, let’s talk about dealing with the mildew once you already have it. You can spray your plants with a fungicide made for powdery mildew. Spray as directed. Then in fall make sure you are disposing (not composting) the leaves and stems.
Peonies do not like being moved, you might lose blooms for two seasons. So move your peony only as a last resort. If you notice the sun conditions are not enough, or if you have your peony in a wet boggy area of your garden I’d suggest moving them. Other than that, try and move other things around them to prevent mildew if possible.
Stem rot is also directly related too improper growing conditions. Too much water, and usually not enough light. The peony stems will just turn to mush and fall over.
Peonies do not like being in wet conditions. Do not overwater them. Do not plant them in a wet area of your garden. Ensure proper drainage. Use good soil amended with peat or coconut coir if your soil is too heavy. This will allow water to absorb and drain freely.
If you have stem rot, dispose of the stems and wait again next year. Try and correct the problem in the meantime.
Botrytis blight shows up on peonies as irregular spots on the foliage. It can also attack stems as they are just appearing out of the ground. The stems will rot and break off. They may be covered in greyish mold.
Botrytis blight is often found when the season has been particularly rainy and damp. In order to prevent it, make sure your soil is light and able to drain away excess water. Amending with coir or peat will help.
Also make sure you are leaving space between your plants to allow for adequate airflow. Also, if possible, avoid overhead watering. If you are overhead watering, water in the morning.
You can spray the new shoots with a fungicide to prevent botrytis blight. I would only do this if your peonies have had it in the past. This is a reason I cut down peonies in the fall to avoid any fungus growing in the dead foliage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is the best place to plant a peony?
Choose a full sun location. That means 6+ hours of sunlight. If you can provide some shade from the hot afternoon sun, even better. Also, choose a location that is protected from the wind. Wind gusts can destroy delicate peony blossoms in a day. Also choose a location with drainage. Peonies do not tolerate standing water, make sure the soil can absorb and drain water freely.
Should they be cut back every year?
Yes. I am actually not a huge advocate of fall clean up and cutting everything down. That being said, I also cut and dispose of peony stems. Peonies are particularly susceptible to fungus and bacteria, removing the old foliage will help rid your garden of any harmful pathogens.
Are they better in sun or shade?
Sun for sure. Peonies are sun loving perennials. They grow best with 6+ hours of sun. They definitely appreciate some protection from the blazing afternoon sun, especially if you live in a warmer zone (7-9). But in too much shade you will experience few blooms (if any) and long leggy peony stems.
What month is best for their blooms?
This depends on location. In my zone 3 garden they bloom in late May- early June. But in warmer zones they bloom in late April- early May. Peonies are spring blooming perennials.
How many times do peonies bloom?
They Bloom once a year. In the Spring. If all the conditions are met (sun, soil, water) they will continue to bloom for a hundred years or more.
How to I stop them from falling over?
Most peonies require staking. If you aren’t up to this task, choose a tree peony, itoh peony, or a variety that does not need staked, like ‘Chocolate Soldier’. For all the other peonies, staking will prevent the flowers from falling on the ground. I like using the two ring cages that you use for tomatoes.
If you are using this kind of cage make sure to get it on to the peony as it first starts popping out of the ground in early spring. You won’t be able to get it on once the peony is fully leafed out. The other option is to use stakes and string to tie around and prop up the peony. This can be done once the peony is fully leafed out.
Peonies are found in gardens all across the world. They are arguably one of the most recognizable flowers in the garden. With their spectacular blossoms and short bloom period, they are a truly special flower. If you choose to add them into your garden, take the time to establish and maintain them and you will be rewarded with a lifetime of blooms.