How to grow and care for peonies

Peonies can bring gorgeous spring blooms to your garden for many generations with proper care. Read how to grow and care for these spring favorites.

Peonies have been a spring favorite for thousands of years. First used as medicinal plants in China, peonies soon came to be loved for their full blooms. Peonies can last hundreds of years with the proper care, so give your peonies the best start by following these growing guidelines.

Choosing the Right Peonies

Peonies are hardy perennials that will survive cold winters. In fact, peonies need cold weather to kick start their spring growth. If you want to grow this show stopper in a warmer climate, there are a few varieties bred for warmer weather.

You can choose from two different types of peonies, garden and tree peonies. Garden peonies, also known as herbaceous peonies, will grow to about 2 to 4 feet and die back to the ground every fall. Garden peonies multiply, so their tubers will have to be divided after five to ten years. Garden peonies have been more popular with gardeners and are more readily available.

Tree peonies will reach heights between 3 and 5 feet, and they lose their leaves but not their branches during the fall. Tree peonies are grafted on to a hardy root stock, and they do not multiply like garden peonies. However, they can last for hundreds of years. They also have larger blooms than garden peonies.

Both varieties come in several shades of white, yellow, pink, scarlet, purple and black. Peonies will also have variations on the number of petals in a bloom depending on the variety. When choosing your peony, pick varieties that will match the color palette of your spring garden.

Whichever variety of peony you choose, pay special attention to the tuber you pick out. Peonies that have three to five eyes, also called buds, on the tuber will bloom within two years. Tubers with fewer eyes will take additional years to produce blooms. Also inspect the tuber for any signs of rot or disease. You want a tuber that looks healthy and that will not spread diseases in your garden.

Planting

The best time to plant peonies is during the late summer or early fall months. By planting your tubers then, they will have the winter and spring months to develop a root system to carry them through the dry summer weather. You can buy peonies in the spring that are potted, but they often will die during the summer because their roots have not fully developed.

When picking a location to plant your peonies, be aware of their needs. They need space to spend down their roots, so avoid planting them under trees or shrubs. They also need plenty of sun, although they can tolerate up to three hours of shade. If your peonies are shaded too much, they will not develop larger blooms. Peonies also need protection from strong winds, but they also need some air circulations to prevent fungus from growing on them.

Once you have decided on a planting location, prepare the soil for optimal growth. Dig a hole at least 18 inches wide and deep, and make sure it is at least 3 feet from another peony. Add organic material and manure, and mix well with the soil. This will provide nutrients and lock in moisture for your plants.



Bury your garden peony tuber 2 inches below ground level. Any deeper, and your peony may not bloom. However, your tree peony should be buried 4 to 5 inches below the graft line; otherwise, the root stock will send out shoots and drain energy from the rest of the plant. With both varieties of peonies, tap the soil around the tuber and water.

Yearly Maintenance

Once established, peonies need minimal care to thrive. Every spring, just as your peonies are beginning to bud fertilize them with 20-20-20 fertilizer or a shovel of manure. Also, apply a layer of mulch around the base to keep the soil moist. After the first year of planting, mulched peonies can survive with just rainfall unless there is a prolonged dry period.

As your peonies begin growing, you will need to stake them so the heavy blooms will remain upright. One option is to buy specially designed peony stakes that look like a table with three legs. The table portion is made up of intersecting metal rods that allow the peony's stems to be supported as they grow. The advantage to this method is that you can put the stake on top of the plant while it is just beginning to grow, and you will not damage new buds wrestling them into order. The other option is to use a stake and string to tie up the plant. This inexpensive method requires the plant to have growth a couple of feet before tie it to the stake.

To have the largest buds, allow only one bud on a stem by removing any side buds. The energy will then be focused on one impressive bloom. In order to have years of larger blooms, remove old blooms as soon as they begin to discolor. If you allow your peony to go to seed, the plant will send nutrients to the new seeds rather than to its roots for next season's blooms.

Before winter sets in, remove all old leaves from your peonies. Do not cut your tree peony's branches to the ground or it will only grow from the root stack. Also, apply a layer of mulch to protect your plants from loss of moisture during the winter. Your peonies need a good frost, so they should survive the winter with little frost damage.

Avoid Overcrowding

Garden peonies will become less robust if their tubers are over crowded. Every ten to fifteen years when blooms become smaller and less prolific, you will need to divide your peony's tubers in the early fall. Carefully dig up your peony and try to not break off the roots as much as possible. Wash off the tubers and inspect them for any signs of disease or rot. Separate tubers with a sharp clean knife. Replant tubers with three to five eyes, since smaller tubers will take longer to bloom.

Disease and Pest Prevention

Avoid damage to your peonies from disease and pests by taking preventive measures before your plants become infected. While most peonies are disease resistant, fungus can attack them. Avoid this problem by watering around the base of your peonies in the morning. Water that sits on the leaves during the night can become a breeding ground for fungus. Also, be sure to remove all brown foliage during the fall so disease and pests will not carry over from the previous season.

If your plant does become infected, remove and burn the damage foliage. Then treat the plant and surrounding plants with a fungicide spray. However, if your peony continues to show signs of disease, it is best to remove and destroy your plant before it infects your other peonies. Before you replant with another peony, treat the ground for fungus.

If your peony is not thriving, examine the roots to see if they are damaged. Peonies are susceptible to rot if they sit in water for too long. If the roots appear knotty with abnormal growths, nematodes have probably infested the roots and zapped the plants energy sources. In both cases, it is best to toss the plant.

With proper care, peonies will provide generation of blooms in your garden.

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