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View from the Garden: Hail the Peony, a Favorite Seasonal Flower

Peonies are budding…my all-time favorite flower (among others!). Now I know it is spring! My grandmother and aunts all had peony bushes, some of which were huge, and the flowers served as the major components of bunches for graves on Memorial Day.

Peonies are available now at garden stores. They sell them now because they have buds and will bloom, although probably with smallish flowers. The best time to buy them is for planting in September or November when you will receive bare root plants. They develop roots during the winter so any you buy now will need extra attention during this summer. Any new peonies will probably not produce much growth or any flowers the first spring. The flowers the next spring might not be very plentiful or large. The third spring they will shine!

Plant location and planting is the secret to healthy, long-lived plants. Happy peonies can live for 100 years or more, so effort at planting time and good care is worthwhile. After they are established, they require very little care.

I buy bare roots for early fall planting and am always surprised at the size of the roots, even on young plants. The hole in the ground must be large enough to accommodate them without “squashing” them into place. You might need to make a hill to place them in because it’s difficult but imperative to get soil under the roots and, most importantly, the eyes must not be planted too deeply! I plant them about 1–11/2” below the surface of the soil. Plant them in a sunny spot that’s not close to trees or large shrubs, as these rob the peonies of water and nutrients. Give each plant plenty of room away from other plants for good air circulation. Supposedly they can take less than six hours of sun per day, but they thrive in sun, so why not put something else in that semi-shaded spot?

Water them in very well after planting to be sure that there are no air pockets in the hole. Newly planted peonies will need water but they do not like too much and can’t abide wet feet. Even in the dry days of summer, peonies need only a good, long soaking about once a week. Mulch after the first frost is a good idea for new plants, but after the first year, they do not need any.

If planted in good soil, they need very little to no fertilizer and absolutely none on the crowns. I have never used fertilizer on them…only compost and not enough of that to bury the eyes.

I have found that most peony flowers need some kind of staking and there are several ways to do that. Supports can be bought and do a good job. If I am supporting several together, I often build a “cage” with bamboo and twine, which the foliage hides. Sometimes, staking each flower in a bush is appropriate. This will definitely be needed if you decide to remove the side buds to force the plant to make even larger flowers.

“Why doesn’t my peony thrive and produce flowers?” There are several possibilities: It is not getting enough sun. It is planted too close to a tree or large shrub. It is planted too deeply. Its feet get too wet. Move it in the fall by carefully digging it up (remember those large roots) and replanting it according to the above instructions. And then wait three years. It should get larger and more vigorous each year.

Peonies are easy to divide and replant in September. Carefully dig them and cut the roots back to 7 inches. With a sharp knife, divide the roots into pieces with at least three eyes on each and replant according to the above instructions. Do not replant or plant any peony into a hole where one previously resided.

They may get a fungus when the growth is new which can be treated with a fungicide—but I have never used it. I cut the diseased parts out and clean up well in the fall.

There are many beautiful peonies…with some careful planting they will delight you for years.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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