Peonies are a lovely, old-fashioned perennial that will add beauty and heavenly scent to your garden for many years. If you're looking for a flowering plant that deer won't eat, growing peonies is an excellent choice.
Peonies will grow in much of the U.S. but they do require a period of dormancy, and most varieties won't survive in growing zones of 9-10 and higher.
The best time for planting peonies is in the late summer to early fall, at least six weeks before the ground typically freezes in your area. Peonies grow most of their roots in the fall, so if they are planted in the spring the plants haven't developed a good root system when summer heat arrives, which can stress newly-planted peonies.
Choose the location for your peonies carefully. Once they are established, peony plants do not like to be disturbed. Plant them in a location where they will receive at least 6-8 hours of full sunlight daily during the growing season. Peonies won't grow well in wet soil or clay, but a raised bed will help avoid these problems.
If a peony simply must be transplanted, this should be done in early fall. Before planting peonies in a new location, it is recommended to divide them. New peony divisions will grow and bloom much better than an entire plant that has been relocated.
When planting peonies, dig a hole about 15 inches deep and wide enough to comfortably accommodate the roots. Be very careful to not plant your peonies too deeply. The tops of the pointed, red budding shoots should be an inch or two above the soil surface. Individual plants should be spaced about 3 feet apart.
Peonies are heavy feeders that appreciate a top dressing of aged compost in the fall. Apply the compost in a circle around the crown, but not directly on the crown itself.
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Peonies will begin to bloom anywhere from one to three years after planting, depending on the variety. The heavy blooms tend to flop over, especially after a rainfall, so you may want to stake your peony plants. An easy method of staking peonies is to set 4 stakes in the ground around the plant, then lace heavy twine back and forth from stake to stake to form a twine grid for the stems to grow through. You can also buy metal supports for peonies at garden centers.
To make your peony produce even larger blossoms, leave only one of the large round buds on each stem, pinching off the smaller buds early in their development. Cut off older blooms as they begin to fade but do not cut back the foliage until after a hard freeze. After a hard frost the plant will be dormant and the foliage can be cut back to within two inches of the soil line. To avoid fungal diseases, the leaf clippings should not be added to compost.
If you've been growing peonies, you will notice that ants tend to congregate on peony plants, especially on the buds. There's an old myth that peonies need ants to help them open their flower buds, but this is not the case. Ants visit peonies to dine on a sweet substance that is produced by the flower buds, but the ants do not eat or harm peony plants. Ants will hide in the blossoms and hitch a ride into the house on cut peony flowers, however. Avoid bringing ants inside with your bouquets by harvesting peony blooms before they are fully open.
For a lovely border, a bouquet garden, or just for their heady aroma, consider planting a variety of peonies in your garden.