Growing Peonies

The quintessential perennial, Peonies can live for an astounding 40 to 50 years.

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Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia), which have foliage that dies back during the dormant season, are quintessential perennials. They stay where you put them, live for an astounding 40 to 50 years, and require very little attention. They survive the harshest winters, easily resist drought, and aren't bothered by hungry deer or rabbits. Think of them as garden workhorses-particularly beautiful workhorses.

How to grow
Although the sight of peonies' sumptuous blooms prompts many people to buy their plants in May, peonies, just like daffodil and tulip bulbs, are best planted in fall.

For fall planting, your best bet is to put in bareroot peonies rather than green, growing plants. A bareroot peony consists of several swollen roots and a crown of pinkish growth points called buds or eyes. When you're shopping, make sure each division you buy has at least three buds and roots that are solidly attached to the crown. Plant as soon as possible, but if you must wait a few days, gently wrap each bareroot plant in moist newspaper, place it into a ventilated plastic bag, and keep the bag out of the sun. Your planting site should receive morning sun and afternoon shade.

The site should also have well draining soil and contain plenty of organic matter. If you need to add organic matter, mix composted manure or compost into the soil before backfilling the hole. If the soil is excessively acidic, add 1 cup of lime per plant.

Plant each bareroot peony so the buds, or growing points, face skyward and are about 1 1/2 inches below the soil surface. A common problem is planting too deeply.

Water well after planting and keep the soil reasonably moist until the first frost. Then pile 4 inches of mulch atop the planting hole to keep the new roots from heaving out of the ground during winter freezes and thaws. Pull the mulch away in spring. After the first year, the established plant won't need winter mulching.

Peonies grow and bloom much better if soil nutrients are replenished every year. Fertilize established peonies by spreading a 2-inch layer of composted manure or compost around the plants in late fall.

The only other care that peonies need is an end-of-the-year cleanup. This consists of cutting peonies back to the ground in late fall and destroying all the plant debris by burning it or putting it into the trash. Peony foliage should not be added to the compost pile because botrytis blight (also called gray mold), a fungal disease that affects peonies, sometimes survives the composting process.

Some gardeners are bothered by ants that are attracted to the nectar in peonies. When you cut peonies for a fresh-flower arrangement, simply wash the ants off with water.

Note: Some of the best varieties that remain handsome through summer include 'Kansas,' a double-flowered red, and 'Le Charme,' a tall Japanese form with pink flowers.

Early to midseason blooming peonies

  • 'STARDUST': Single flowers with shining white petals cupped around golden stamens bloom on strong stems early in the season.
  • 'BIG BEN': Bomb double, medium-size, dark red flowers grow on stiff stems and are fragrant; foliage stays handsome through summer. This early bloomer is a good choice for southern gardens.
  • 'KANSAS': This American Peony Society Gold Medal Winner produces bright red to rosy pink double flowers that do not fade while blooming. Lots of blooms on strong stems make it a good cut flower. An early bloomer, it is one of the few double reds that grow well in southern gardens.
  • 'RED CHARM': The bomb double, waxy, deep crimson flowers of this early to midseason bloomer are long lasting; sturdy foliage looks good all summer.
  • 'MISS AMERICA': Semidouble, fragrant flowers with white petals and yellow stamens are good for cutting. A two-time American Peony Society Gold Medal Winner, this midseason bloomer is a good choice for southern states.


Midseason to late blooming peonies

  • 'ANGEL CHEEKS': Bomb-shaped, mildly fragrant flowers with soft pink petals bloom in midseason. The plant has sturdy stems and deep green leaves.
  • 'LE CHARME': A vigorous grower with stiffly erect stems, this midseason bloomer bears Japanese-form flowers with rose-colored petals and butter yellow stamens streaked with pink.
  • 'LOUISE MARX': Fragrant, Japanese-form white blooms with gold stamens are borne in midseason and make fine cut flowers; foliage is reliable all summer.
  • 'MISS MARY': Single flowers with silky red petals and contrasting short gold stamens are borne in midseason.
  • 'FESTIVA MAXIMA': Lots of large, fragrant, white double flowers with crimson flecks bloom in midseason.
  • 'PINK PRINCESS': This vigorous grower and midseason bloomer has stout, erect, dark green foliage and single flowers with gold stamens surrounded by petals in shades of pink.
  • 'NIPPON GOLD': Pink petals surround yellow stamens in a single flower form. The vigorous foliage of this late bloomer stays nice all summer.

 

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