Peonies are voluptuous beauties that can live as long as humans, sometimes even longer, outliving those who planted them. Peony flowers are huge, old-fashioned, beautiful, and incredibly rewarding for home gardeners. But planting them in the right place can be a challenge.
Deciding where to plant and grow peonies will make a big difference in terms of how well they will do in your garden. Peonies make wonderful border plants. They thrive in full sun and don’t like the wind, but tolerate partial shade and most soil types. They especially like a bit of winter chill.
Where Do Peonies Grow best?
There are two basic types of peony, the herbaceous type that we grow in our gardens and less common tree peonies that are, in fact, shrubs that grow to about 4-5 feet (120-150 cm). Herbaceous peonies die down to the level of the ground in winter, while tree peonies keep growing although they only flower in spring.
Herbaceous garden peonies are grouped into five types that are defined by the shape of the petals:
- Single or Chinese peonies have one row of broad petals around a central cluster of yellow stamens
- Semi-double peonies have broad central petals where the stamens are
- Double peonies have central petals that are the same width as the outer petals
- Japanese peonies have long, thin petals in the center of the flower
- Anemone peonies have broad central petals
The Key is Where You Grow Your Peonies
Peonies commonly live for at least 50 years and some have been known to continue growing for up to a century. But the key to them surviving this long lies in how they are established. This relates to when and where they are planted as well as the position and soil they are planted in.
According to Cindy Haynes, of the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University, peonies bloom best in a sunny location, but the flowers will last longer if you plant peonies in the shade. So, that’s a decision you will have to make.
Neither sort likes to be transplanted, so be sure to find the right spot before planting. That said, if you lift them carefully in the fall and, if necessary, divide, and replant them the right way, there’s a good chance that they will survive.
Traditional Peony Varieties
There are some traditional old favorite varieties to consider planting. They include these doubles:
- The early-blooming, white Festiva Maxima
- The midseason, bright red Mary Brand, which is very fragrant and is fantastic for cut flowers
- The late-blooming, pretty pink, heirloom treasure, Myrtle Gentry
Some Favorite Locations For Peonies
Tree peonies make great hedge plants and borders alongside paths and driveways. They also create a pretty backdrop for other garden plants.
Generally, you will find that your herbaceous peonies will do best in a raised bed. But more importantly, they need well-drained soil. If the soil is too wet, the tubers they grow from will start to rot. Anyone who has tried to grow peonies will know that rotting, quite simply, means fewer, if any, flowers.
Avoid exposed locations, especially in windy areas as wind will destroy peonies while they are establishing themselves. They do, though, need good air circulation because this is a proven way to control fungal diseases.
Peonies grow from tubers that store the food the leaves of the plant produce. Those available commercially are generally grafted and commonly sold as bare root peonies, without any soil around the roots.
When you plant a peony tuber you will see small eyes similar to those that develop on potatoes. These are peony buds and each one will usually develop a stem when the plant starts growing. They are usually red and between a quarter and half-an-inch (6-12 mm) long.
The tubers should be firm and fleshy, ideally with 3-5 eyes. The fewer eyes they have, the fewer flowers they will produce in the first couple of years.
If they have less than three eyes, they may rot in the ground and not produce any flowers. If they have more than five eyes, the flowers will likely be smaller than you expect.
If you order your bare root peonies online, they can dry out. For this reason, it’s a good idea to soak them in water for 2-4 hours before planting. This will rehydrate them.
When to Plant Peonies
Both herbaceous and tree peonies are best planted in the fall when the tubers are dormant. Avoid planting them in spring or in hot summer weather.
Peonies planted in spring commonly take several years to flower – a lot longer than those planted in the fall. Herbaceous peonies planted from bare roots will usually flower the second year after they have been planted.
How to Plant Peonies Outdoors
Start by preparing your peony beds. The traditional process is to dig 18-inch (457 mm) wide and deep holes for each tuber, about 3 feet (92 cm) apart. Then mix soil with compost, well-rotted manure or peat moss, and a suitable fertilizer and place a spadeful into each hole.
Plant the tubers with the flower buds pointing upwards. Make sure that they are just below the surface of the soil – about a half to one inch deep. If you plant them too deep they won’t flower.
Cover with soil and push it firmly around the peony roots. Adding a mulch of chopped leaves helps to regulate the temperature of the soil.
If you cover with mulch make sure that the flower buds are no more than two inches below the soil. After you have planted your peony tubers, keep the ground moist until the ground freezes.
Growing Peonies Indoors in Containers
Peonies are notoriously difficult to grow indoors, largely because of their large root system. But if you divide the tubers every now and then you can eventually have a bunch of beautiful peony pots that make a statement. You won’t even need to cut peony flowers to enjoy them indoors!
You will usually find potted peonies in garden centers in spring. The problem is that they may outgrow their pots quite quickly.
If you do decide to buy a potted peony, it’s probably best to buy one in a very large pot, that is at least 3-4 years old. That way you will be rewarded with flowers from the start. Just make sure that there are lots of drainage holes in the container, and keep it well watered.
If you decide to plant your potted peonies out in the garden, be sure that the plant is at the same level with the soil as it was in the container.
Best Soil For Planting Peonies
Peonies are not that fussy but most gardeners find they do well in good quality, well-drained, slightly acid soil. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture guide on Growing Peonies, they will thrive in deep fertile, clay-type loam.
This wonderful, old guide about growing peonies has some stellar tips that any home gardener can learn from. Their guiding rule is that peonies have the potential to last almost forever (certainly in human terms), but they will not grow well in “poorly prepared soil”.
All you need to do is get your peony beds ready two to three weeks before you plant them. Once your peonies are growing, add a balanced general fertilizer in spring every year.
Do Peonies Grow In Shade?
Peonies prefer full sun, but they will grow in beds that have two to three hours of shade every day. Ironically, the flowers last longer when they grow in dappled shade.
The downside is that they don’t usually produce large flowers. This is often because the shrubs and trees that make the shade claim the water that your peonies are going to need to thrive.
Are Peonies Easy To Grow?
Once peonies are established, they are very easy to grow and maintain. Herbaceous peonies usually die down naturally in winter and then emerge again in spring. But a little moderate pruning is important.
Remove old foliage after the first frost and deadhead peony flowers once they have bloomed. This is, in a way, pruning, but it also helps to keep peony plants healthy.
Cutting peony flowers has a similar effect. But it also stops the plants from producing seed pods, and this allows the plants to direct their energy into the tubers. You won’t get seeds, but you will get bigger, more beautiful peony flowers.
Tree peonies grow very slowly and take a good three years to become fully established. Once they are established they need very little maintenance.
But all you need to do is to cut the dead branches of your tree peonies. It’s super-easy.
Peonies do tend to be prone to powdery mildew, which is why good air circulation is so important. But it won’t kill your plants.
Ants are also common on peony buds and peony flowers. But all they do is eat the sweet nectar. They won’t do any harm, so don’t be tempted to spray with insecticides.
You can grow peonies in any garden, although they have the most impact when grown en masse or to form borders. They are surprisingly easy to grow and just as easy to maintain, as our 2023 gardening tips will show you.
If you know nothing about peonies, this is a good place to start.