Peonies are one of the true joys of late spring and early summer with their exquisite, lush flowers. These perennials also are not difficult to grow in your garden and can live up to 100 years. (Yes, you read that correctly!)
Popular since Victorian times, peonies are old-fashioned favorites that also make outstanding pass-along plants from generation to generation. That's the case on the Drummond ranch, too, where Ree Drummond enjoys a plot of "beautiful, fluffy peonies, planted at our homestead many, many years ago by the wife of Big John, the longtime cowboy of the ranch," as she says. "Big John has since retired and he and his wife have moved away. But every year for about three weeks, I get to have big, fluffy white and fuschia peonies in my life."
Peonies grow best in USDA Hardiness zones 3 to 8. Because they need a period of cold with temperatures below 40 degrees for a minimum of six weeks, they won't grow in hot climates. You'll find them as potted plants or bare roots (no soil attached). It's best to plant bare roots in the fall, but if you purchase a potted peony earlier in the season, get it in the ground right away to enjoy it amongst your other summer flowers.
Here's what else you need to know about how to grow peonies.
What kind of peony should I grow?
There are three main types: Herbaceous, tree, and Itoh peonies. Herbaceous types die back to the ground in winter. Tree peonies, also called woody peonies, are taller and more shrub-like with large flowers. Itoh peonies are a hybrid of herbaceous and tree peonies; they die back to the ground but their flowers are large like tree peonies. All peonies range in height from two to six feet tall, depending on the variety.
How do I plant peonies?
Find a spot in full sun, which is considered six or more hours of direct sunlight per day. Peonies may do okay in fewer hours of sunlight, but you'll get lots of foliage and fewer flowers. Give them plenty of space to spread, too. They do not do well when crowded in with other perennials or trees because they have to fight for moisture and nutrients. Also, make sure it's a well-draining soil because they don't like to stay wet.
For bare root plants, plant the tuber about one to two inches below ground. If you plant too deeply, it will not flower. For potted peonies, plant in a hole about twice the width and the same depth as it is in the pot. Add some compost to the hole, too. It's fine to add a slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer to the hole, if you like. Also, don't expect flowers the first season. You may get them, but many peonies take a year or two to get established before blooming. Water well and then during dry spells the first two years.
For tall or heavy peonies, you may need to add stakes to keep the flowers upright. After the blooms fade, cut off the spent flowers so they won't put energy into developing seed pods. Following the first hard frost in fall, cut back herbaceous peonies to the ground. Remove and toss any dropped foliage from beneath any kind of peony.
Do peonies need ants to flower?
Contrary to popular belief, peonies don't need ants to flower. The ants simply are busy collecting the nectar from the buds. Just rinse your flowers or shake them off if you plan to bring them indoors.
Cut your peonies for vases when they're in the "marshmallow" stage.
It's best to cut peonies at a certain stage for longest bloom time in the vase. If they're already open, they'll last only a few days. Instead, snip them when they're at the marshmallow stage: the bud has some color and feels soft, not squishy. Cut them in the morning when they're full of moisture.
How do I divide peonies?
Unlike some perennials which need divided every year or two, peonies don't really need divided for decades unless you want more plants or if they become overcrowded or too shaded by nearby trees. Use a digging fork or garden spade to lift up the plant in mid fall. Many gardeners lift the entire clump and use a clean, sharp knife to divide it into sections so that you have several roots and three to five eye buds (they look like little upright pink nubs) per piece. Then replant in a new location. However, be aware that the transplants may not bloom for a few years as they're getting established. An alternative that sometimes works is to dig up a piece from the edges of the clump.