Traveling American back roads, abandoned farmsteads come into view. More times than not, a thriving peony (Paeonia spp.) bush stands guard. Time your visit right, and you’ll be greeted by intoxicating blooms. The sight and smell testify to the tough beauty and resilience of these gorgeous old-time plants. Under the right conditions, they’ll live a century. Deserted homesteads provide excellent clues for peony care.
PLANNING FOR GARDEN PEONIES
Most modern peony hybrids descend from Asian ancestors cultivated for thousands of years. Herbaceous plants, they die back to the ground every winter. Once established, like those farmstead stalwarts, peonies prefer to be left alone. For maximum blooms and health, give them permanent sites with direct, full sun at least six to eight hours daily. Hotter climates demand filtered sun for sunburn protection, but more shade means fewer flowers. Garden peonies need extended cold exposure to set their finest blooms. They flourish in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 9.
Give peonies good air circulation and room to grow. Depending on variety, they reach 2 to 4 feet in height and spread. Humid climates or crowded situations leave peonies susceptible to fungal disease. Also, their shallow roots lose out on nutrients and moisture if they compete with other plants. For container peonies, select pots at least 18 to 24 inches in diameter and wider than they are deep. Remember, plants have less cold tolerance in containers than in the ground.
Peonies’ spring and early summer blooms are stunning. Ranging 2 to 10 inches wide and single to fully double, the flowers run pure white to deep chocolate-maroon. Colorful flares often splash their insides. By staggering varieties with different bloom times, peony season can stretch six to eight weeks. Deadheading keeps blooms coming, but the end is inevitable. Plan interesting companion plantings with later bloom times, complementary textures, fall color or interesting fruit.
PLANTING PEONY ROOTS
Garden peonies grow back each spring from thick tuberous roots with growing points known as “eyes.” You can buy container-grown peonies, but consider fall-planting bare root instead. Look for roots with at least three to five eyes, and plant them about six weeks before your garden normally freezes. This gives roots time to settle in their new home. Don’t expect blooms for the first year.
Good drainage is critical to peony health. Poorly drained, soggy soil is their number one killer. Prepare the site by incorporating plenty of organic matter, and plant the fleshy tubers – “eyes” up – about 2 inches deep. Never plant deeper; roots need plenty of oxygen. Plant too deep and you may not see blooms for years. Wait until the ground freezes, and then apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch.
CARING FOR GARDEN PEONIES
Throughout the growing season, water established peonies when the top several inches of soil feels dry. A finger’s length is a good measure. To reduce the risk of disease, avoid overhead watering. Use drip irrigation, or water the plant’s base instead. As soon as spring shoots emerge, get peony hoops in place for extra support. You’ll need them when heavy blooms fill with rain. Don’t worry; bushes fill in fast to camouflage the hoops.
To harvest cut flowers, always leave uncut stems with at least three to four leaves each. Limit your bouquets to less than one-third of the blooming stems. Garden peonies rely on their foliage to refuel underground tubers with food for next year. Like tulips, they need foliage in place as long as possible. Once frost turns your peonies black, cut them back to the ground. Disease can overwinter on peony debris, so dispose of all the cuttings. Never compost them. Then settle in yourself to await the next round of spectacular spring blooms.