Get to Know Peonies

My Garden Life
June 18, 2018
Table of Contents

Peonies have been a flower garden favorite among generations of gardeners.  These huge, fragrant, queenly flowers are said to symbolize a happy home life and marriage. Here’s what you’ll need to know to enjoy peonies in your garden.

Types of Peonies

Peonies are available in two forms, a woody tree form and a herbaceous type.

Herbaceous Peonies

Herbaceous peonies, also known as garden peonies, are the most commonly grown and easiest to care for. Garden peonies grow best in hardiness zones 3 to 8 and prefer deeply worked, moist, rich soil and full sun. That doesn’t mean they can’t take a little dappled sunshine, but in shade they will not bloom.

Close up of a big, lush pink peony flower-Paeonia lactiflora.

Tree Peonies

Tree peonies develop woody stems and generally bloom a little earlier than herbaceous peonies. They grow taller than garden peonies and prefer USDA hardiness zones 5-8. They can take two or three years to get fully settled in before flowering occurs.

A tree peony loaded with big pink flowers-Paeonia suffruticosa.

Peonies are a Colorful and Fragrant Landscape Investment

Peonies come in every color between swan-feather white and a deep, sultry wine-red. Their petals can be single, creating a colorful frame around the golden stamens, or as full and lush as a pom pom. The flower heads start as a ball then open slowly to eventually reveal the huge flower that can be from six to eight-inches in diameter.

Hybrid yellow Itoh peony in a flower border.

Peony’s sweet scent is heavenly in the garden or when a few flowers are cut and put in a vase to enjoy indoors. In fact, peonies make excellent cut flowers so be sure to grow more than one plant if you can, so you’ve got plenty of blooms for flower arrangements. When the flowering period ends, somewhere between late May to early June, cut the flower stems down to the bush. Peonies have beautifully shaped, shiny foliage that creates an attractive backdrop to colorful annuals or perennials through rest of the summer and fall.

Pink and red cut peony flowers in a glass vase of water.

Peonies are a smart landscape investment. They are low-maintenance and can live ten years or more. Because they live so long, you’ll want to choose your plant’s location carefully. Select a spot where you can easily admire your peony; they don’t like being transplanted. Also bear in mind that a nearby tree or large shrub may eventually give too much shade so plan your location accordingly.

Big bright pink peonies blooming next to hosta plants.

Planting Peonies

Peonies are simple to plant by following these easy steps:

  1. Dig a hole two feet wide by two feet deep.
  2. Mix in some humus, like peat moss, potting soil, or well-rotted compost made with dead leaves. Conditioning the soil is especially important if the soil is high in clay or very sandy.
  3. Place the plant roots in the hole and fill with soil until the crown of the plant (the area of the plant where the roots and stems meet) is level with the surrounding soil.
  4. Water in to settle the soil around the roots and get the plant off to a good start.
  5. Provide a support cage for your peony while it’s still small. It will be difficult to install a cage once the foliage starts to get tall and dense.Two peony plants nicely supported by cages before the flowers bloom.

Peony Care

Peonies have few disease problems. If you have planted them in good soil and full sun, the only thing you want to remember is not to pile on mulch to close to the “crown” (point where the foliage and roots join). Peonies are very cold-resistant, and excessive damp can cause a condition called crown rot.

Peonies also like support; peony stems are not quite up to the massive glory of their flowers. Special peony support rings can be found at many garden centers. If you choose to provide a support, be sure to install it in early spring before the plants bush out.

Red peony shrub in full flower.

Ants on Peony Plants

If you see ants on the flower buds, don’t worry.  Ants are a peony’s best friend. They are actually cleaning up the sweet sap that emerges on the flower buds, and fighting off potentially damaging insects for the privilege. Many gardeners believe that ants are necessary for peony buds to open. This is not true! Peony buds provide a food source for ants but rest assured, the buds would still develop and open without the activity of ants.

Red ants are crawling over a peony flower bud.

Good Companion Plants for Peonies

Plant taller, blue or yellow companion plants such as Siberian Irises or Bearded Irises to contrast with the white, pink, and red colors and rounded form of peonies. Spring bulbs will also fill space while peonies are coming up, and climbing roses add vertical interest while echoing the form, color, and fragrance of the peony.

Supporting Peony Plants

Like a happy marriage, peonies need a good start and support, but will reward you for a lifetime! To learn more about the best way to stake or support your peony plants see our article, Stake Your Flowers to Keep Them from Falling Over.

Pink garden peonies are falling over from the weight of the heavy flowers.

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