Peonies are perennials that come back every year. Their show-stopping blooms will take your breath away. Peonies are said to symbolize a happy life and a happy marriage. The peony is one of the most popular flowers used in wedding bouquets.
Peony plants could live longer than you. Some have been known to thrive for 100 years. I got my heirloom peony from a division of my mother’s, who got her’s from her aunt which came from the old homestead.
Peonies are sun-lovers and flourish in full sun. They require at least six hours of sunlight every day. Chose your location wisely, as peonies do not like to be disturbed and do not respond well to transplanting. Over time they become difficult to move due to their development of a large root system.
Peonies are winter hardy in zones 3-8. They relish cold winters to help in bud formation. Unlike most perennials, they don’t need to be divided. Peony plants require little maintenance if they are planted properly and establish themselves.
Plant peonies in a location with well-drained, neutral to slight alkaline pH rich soil. Adding organic material or compost to the soil will encourage healthy plants.
It is recommended to plant in full sun during autumn. Plant peonies three to four feet apart with the eyes of the plant pointing upward. Cover the plant with 1 1/2 to 2 inches of loose soil. Water the plant regularly until the first frost of winter. After the first frost, cover the peonies with four inches of mulch. In spring, remove the mulch and water the plant thoroughly. Peonies require moist soil during the spring and summer months.
After the flowers have faded, deadhead the flowers and six to eight inches of the stem. This will keep the plants looking neat and will also prevent them from producing seed heads. Remove as little foliage as possible so the plants can produce the energy they need for next year’s flowers. Cut the foliage to the ground in the fall to avoid any overwintering diseases. Provide the plant with fertilizer every couple of years.
Transplant peony plants in the fall as they are entering dormancy, rather than in the spring when they are starting to grow. Peonies should be settled into place about six weeks before the ground freezes.
Cut back the foliage in September, when the foliage starts to die. Carefully dig up the entire root ball angling the spade toward the plant, so the roots come up in a clump. Dig deeply to avoid damaging the fleshy roots. Pick up the clump of roots and gently shake off any loose soil. It is not necessary to divide, but now is the time. To divide, slice through the roots in sections, ensuring to keep three to five of the large, nodule shaped shoots, or eyes, in each section. Replant immediately.
Prepare the new bed for the peonies in a well-drained soil and sunny spot. Dig a generous-sized hole, about 2-feet deep and 2-feet across. Space holes three to four feet apart. Set the root so the eyes face upward on top of a mound of soil in the hole, placing the roots just two inches below the soil surface. Don’t plant too deep. Peony plants do not thrive when buried too deep in the ground. Water thoroughly.
Newly transplanted peony plants may not bloom in the first spring or even until the third or fourth year. Like children, young peonies take time to develop. They usually need a few years to establish themselves, bloom and grow. A mature plant can easily measure up to 3 feet across, so allow room for them to grow and to get good air circulation. A support cage should be put in place before the plant is more than 8 inches tall.
Many gardeners ask how to rid ants on peony buds. Never spray the ants! They are attracted to the sugary droplets on the outside of the flower. The ants help the buds open. Once the buds start to open, ants disappear. Flowers emit subtle, sweet fragrance, which attracts wasps and flies, the main pollinators of these plants. The peony is also able to perform self-pollination.
Luckily, peonies are also one of many deer-resistant plants you can grow in your garden. Also, rabbits do not like the taste of the plants. Peonies rarely are troubled by pest or disease.
Peonies make wonderful cut flowers, lasting more than a week in a vase. For best results, cut long stems in the morning when the buds are still tight. Wrap freshly cut peony stems in a damp paper towel and place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use them. When removing the peonies from the refrigerator give the stems a fresh cut and place them in lukewarm water to wake them up.
Peony petals are edible. Add to summer salads or use as a garnish for lemonade and ice tea.
Peonies fail to bloom for several reasons. A hard freeze in spring, competition from the roots of other plants/trees, low fertility of the soil, drought stress during bud development in the previous year, poor drainage, or wet conditions. Botrytis blight of the flower occurs during cool, rainy spring weather; buds blacken and die. Planting too deep and overcrowding can also hamper bloom.
Peony plants come in many different colors, varieties and sizes. Find one that will fit into your garden and sit back and enjoy for many years to come.
(Spencer is a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Columbia County since 2015. She has been gardening for several years.)