15 Tips For Growing Beautiful Peonies in Pots or Containers
Thinking of growing peonies in pots or containers? These popular flowers make great container plants, but can be a little picky about their growing conditions. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner shares her favorite tips for beautiful blooming peonies in your container garden this season!
Peonies are one of the biggest, most eye catching blooms in any garden. While I love them in gardens, softening the landscape with their varying hues and ruffled petals. Why not bring them in closer for you to enjoy? Growing peonies in containers will allow you to place them in seating areas, such as decks, patios, and verandas.
Container gardening can also be easier to manage if you live in colder hardiness zones or live in areas that are subject to inclement weather. But how do you get your peonies to perform just as well in containers as they do when grown in garden beds?
Whether you’re short on garden space, or just want to bring this beautiful flower close, growing peonies in containers is a fairly simple process. Keep reading for our top tips to help ensure your peonies bloom as prolifically in containers as they do in your garden!
- 1 Know Your Hardiness Zone
- 2 Pick a Proper Container
- 3 Use The Correct Soil Type
- 4 Water Evenly, But Not Too Much
- 5 Pick The Right Location
- 6 Choose The Right Variety
- 7 Plant Them Correctly
- 8 Stick to a Regular Maintenance Plan
- 9 Address Pests & Diseases Quickly
- 10 Use The Correct Type of Fertilizer
- 11 Plan For Life After Seasonal Blooms
- 12 Have a Plan For Fall
- 13 Have a Plan For Overwintering
- 14 Have a Plan For Spring
- 15 Experiment With Design
- 16 Final Thoughts
Know Your Hardiness Zone
I wanted to bring this up at the beginning of the list. While any gardener can grow a peony in a container, the lower the zone you live in the more difficult it will be to overwinter. But it is not impossible.
Peonies are rated for as low as zone 3, up to zone 8. The general rule for planting perennials into containers is to plant 2 zones above. So if you live in zones 7-8, peonies will over winter nicely in containers.
For zones 3-4, you will need to do some things in order to ensure the survival of your peony through the winter. For zone 5-6, you will have to provide some protection. None of these zones are exact rules. It will depend on a few factors, like how cold the winters are in your area. Or how much freeze and then thaw your area experiences.
Also things like pot size will determine how successful your container peonies will be. Generally speaking, it is easier to keep peonies in containers in zones 7-8.
Pick a Proper Container
Not every container will work for peonies. You will need a large container that has some depth to it in order to sustain its large tap root. I recommend a pot that is at least 2′ deep and wide. This will also help with overwintering later on.
Make sure any pot you choose has proper drainage. A peony will rot if left in standing water. Excess water must be able to drain freely out the bottom of the pot. Rocks or pebbles in the bottom of a container are not enough. The container needs drainage hole(s) in the bottom.
If you live in a zone with below freezing temperatures in the winter, I recommend not using terracotta pots. When the pot freezes solid it will expand and can shatter the pot. I really like half whiskey barrel planters, large plastic planters, or ones made of fiberglass.
Use The Correct Soil Type
While peonies in the garden will tolerate poorer soils, when planting them in containers, light potting soil is best.
Peonies like nice light free draining soil. Starting them off in potting soil will allow water to drain away from the roots of the peony. In the fall I would add a layer of compost on top of the peony so that the following year all the nutrients will seep down into the pot with the spring rain and snowmelt.
Water Evenly, But Not Too Much
Peonies need to be evenly watered, but they do not tolerate being in standing water. If you choose a container that has adequate drainage holes and be sure to use a light potting soil blend, watering will be easier.
Do not let your container peony dry out. A garden peony is much more drought tolerant because of its large and deep tap root. This allows the peony to search deep underground for water. A container peony is limited to what it can find within the container. The leaves will turn brown and crispy if it is left unwatered for too long.
The actual amount of water will depend on a few things such as rain, weather, location, and container size. I would go out and check every couple of days, or even daily in real hot conditions. Stick your finger in the soil and see if it is dry. If it is, water well. You’ll eventually get the hang of the water needs of your peony.
If the peony is really dry and when you water it the water flows out the bottom almost immediately, you will need to do more than just your regular water routine. Either water slowly by putting the hose on a slow drip and allowing the water to saturate into the soil. Or water from the bottom. Use a tray or tub filled with water and place the container in so it can soak the water from the bottom.
If your peony is over watered the leaves will start turning yellow and might even rot at the stems. Make sure the water is able to drain from your peony. Check the soil, make sure it is evenly moist, but not soggy.
A quick smell will also help determine if the container is waterlogged. It will smell like rotten eggs and not earthy nice soil. Make sure your container has drainage. Drill in extra holes if the water isn’t draining.
Also make sure any tray that is sitting under the container is emptied of excess water. You may have to repot your peony if the pot remains soaked and waterlogged. Cut all rotten roots off and use fresh potting soil.
Pick The Right Location
Peonies require full sun to bloom to their fullest. They will bloom less in part sun, and will cease to bloom in shade conditions. Choose a location that will receive 6 hours of sun. A bit of afternoon shade to protect from the harshest rays of the sun will help keep the flowers intact longer.
Also choose a location that is protected from wind and rain if possible. Peony blossoms are delicate, one harsh wind storm or downpour could ruin the season’s blooms.
The beauty of container peonies is that the areas you want to sit outside are also out of harsh afternoon sun, wind, and rain. So place your containers in seating areas, on decks and patios so you can enjoy the flowers and the flowers can enjoy protected locations.
Choose The Right Variety
This is mostly a matter of personal preference. If you want huge pink double blooms, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peonies are stunning. If you want dark and dramatic blooms, try ‘Karl Rosenfield’. Or if you want a frilly exotic variety, ‘Bowl of Beauty’ is gorgeous.
My only tips for peony variety selection is perhaps you want a variety that doesn’t need to be staked. A sturdy variety like ‘Buckeye Belle’ is nice because you won’t need cages or stakes.
Choosing a variety may also be limited by flower color. Some of the most popular peony varieties bloom in white, yellow, red, pink, and purple. Color shouldn’t be your sole deciding factor, but it’s one that may limit the variety you choose.
Another consideration is bloom time. Peony blossoms are relatively short-lived in our gardens. You might want a blast of blossoms in the early spring, in which case I recommend a Fern Leaf peony. Or you might want a later summer blossom, in which case an Itoh peony such as ‘Bartzella’ is a good choice.
Plant Them Correctly
There is an art to planting a peony. They must be planted exactly at the crown of the plant, or else they won’t bloom. They also don’t care to be moved once they are established.
You can either purchase a peony plant, or you can purchase a root.
For a plant: Start by digging out a large hole in the center (or slightly to the back of the pot if you plan on planting something in front). remove the peony from the nursery pot and loosen the soil and roots.
Place into the hole. Only plant it up to the crown of the plant. Do not plant higher up the stem. Ensure that the line of the crown of the peony is only slightly below the container.
Do not allow the crown to be above the container line. If it is mounded above the pot, water will just run off the plant. If it is sunken too far below the pot on the other hand, it leaves the plant susceptible to crown and root rot. Water the newly planted peony in well.
For bare roots: dig a hole place the bare root into the soil. Cover the ‘eyes’ of the peony root with only an inch of soil. Again, make sure the covered peony is level with the container. Not sunken or mounded above the container. These bare roots are best purchased and planted in the fall. Water the root in well.
Stick to a Regular Maintenance Plan
The beauty of container peonies is they require little maintenance.
Depending on the variety, they may need to be staked or caged. I think for container peonies, the two hoop cages work best. They hold the plant upright and you don’t notice the cage through the foliage.
Since you container peony will probably be close to a sitting area it is nice to not see a bunch of stakes and string. Put the cage on the peony in the early spring so the plant can grow through and around it and cover the cage.
After the peony has finished blooming, clip off the spent blossoms. This will ensure the energy the plant would put into seed production will go back into the plant and become bigger and better next year.
Address Pests & Diseases Quickly
Peonies are relatively disease and pest free. The best way to avoid pests is to keep your peonies growing in their ideal conditions. That means having them planted at the correct depth, in light nutrient-rich soil, in full sun, and kept evenly moist. If you can achieve these things, pests and disease are far less likely to affect your peonies.
However, that is not much help to read if you already have pests. Bug related pests such as aphids and spider mites can be controlled by washing the leaves of the peony or giving them a sharp spray with the hose (don’t spray the delicate blooms). Or you can use an insecticidal soap, making sure to spray the undersides of the leaves.
One bug that is not a pest to peonies are ants. Ants and peonies have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they both help each other. Ants eat the sticky sap secreted by the peony blossoms and in return the ants protect the peony blossoms from other blossoms-eating pests. But peonies do not require ants in order to bloom as some garden lore suggests.
Powdery mildew may also be a problem with your container peonies. This powdery film coats the foliage of plants and will stunt and may eventually kill your peony. Apply a fungicide formulated for powdery mildew (it will say on the bottle).
At the end of the season dispose of all, or most (depending on the size of your pot) of the soil and start with fresh potting soil so as to not reinfect your peony next year. Next consider the reasons for the mildew.
Avoid watering the foliage, especially at night. Wet leaves left overnight are a breeding ground for mildew. Make sure your peony is getting enough sunlight as well.
Use The Correct Type of Fertilizer
I tend not to fertilize my perennials. Instead I top dress my soil with compost in the fall. You can use compost, sea soil, worm castings, or aged manure. I would add this onto the container peony the same way as my garden. Applying a nice top dressing that can seep down to the roots in the spring. If you didn’t get to it in fall, no worries, apply the top dressing in the spring.
If you have your peonies in mixed containers with other annuals, they can be fertilized with an all purpose fertilizer (like a 20-20-20). Annuals tend to use a lot of nutrients for their big fast growing flowers.
Plan For Life After Seasonal Blooms
Peonies only bloom once in a garden season. This usually happens in late spring to early summer (depending on variety and amount of sunlight). After they finish blooming and you trim off the seed pods there are a couple things you can do.
You can enjoy the lacy foliage of the peony. In a mixed container it will still have structure and texture in a pot. Other annuals can take over and flower. Try adding geraniums or petunias underneath.
Another option is to have other pots of flowers to rotate out with your peony. You cannot cut down your peony immediately after it blooms. The plant still needs to get energy from the sun so it can grow bigger and stronger the next season. But you can move the whole pot out of your arrangement of containers (this works great if you have a group of 3-5 pots).
Move the container peony into a full sun location and continue to water it. If you have a sprinkler system, placing it into a garden bed so it can get watered is even better. Then move another container in its place. Maybe you have a pot with coneflower that will be starting to bloom.
Have a Plan For Fall
Enjoy your container peony into the fall. They turn a lovely fiery red color. Consider adding some decorative gourds, or some mums around them from a beautiful fall display.
When it is time to put your garden to bed, cut your peony down. Make sure you are watering until freeze up. I would also put a layer of leaves or mulch on top of the container.
Have a Plan For Overwintering
Peonies are vulnerable when they are grown in pots. You can place your peony in an unheated garage to give it some protection. If it is a very large pot and you live in zones 6+ a good layer of mulch or leaves may be all it needs.
If you live in zones 3 or 4 or anywhere the ground experiences a lot of freeze and then thaw over the winter, you will need to overwinter your peony in the ground. Since it takes time for a peony to establish and they don’t like to be disturbed once planted, the best bet is to sink the whole pot into the ground.
Dig a large hole into an empty space in the garden and sink the entire pot into the ground. I recommend using a big black nursery pot. Like one a tree comes in. You can insert this liner into a more decorative pot in the summer and then take out the insert and dig it into the ground.
Have a Plan For Spring
Start watering your container peony in the spring. Red shoots will start poking out. Place a cage around at this time if needed so the peony can grow around it.
If you sunk your pot into the ground for the winter, dig up the pot once the ground has thawed.
Experiment With Design
Now onto the fun part. Here are a few suggestions on how you can incorporate peonies into container designs.
Create a perennial garden in a very large container. Use delphinium in the back and a peony in the front. Finish it off with a creeping ground cover such as sweet woodruff or wooly thyme.
Combine a peony with annuals. Add geraniums and petunias below a peony. The leafy peony will provide structure and greenery after it blooms and the annuals will keep on blooming all season long.
Or, plant your peony alone in a container and plant other plants in containers solo and create a lovely layered grouping. For example plant a peony, hydrangea, and a rose in 3 big pots and have them in a group.
You can add a couple of smaller pots of flowering annuals into the group, like geraniums or dahlias. Groups of containers work best with odd numbers. Do 3, 5, or 7 pots of various plants and flowers for a visually appealing display.
Peonies are classic garden flowers. Being able to put them into containers creates even more possibilities. If you are short on garden space or want to enjoy the beauty (and sometimes fragrance) up close then container peonies are a great choice. Follow these tips and you should have beautiful peonies growing in containers for years.