Peonies can be a beautiful addition to your perennial garden, with their large showy flowers on full display in mid to late spring. Long-lived plants, peonies have been divided and passed on for generations.
Due to peonies’ need for a winter chill, they often have been considered more suited to northern climates. However, Paeonia lactiflora cultivars are well-suited to our area. These herbaceous peonies are one of the most easily grown hardy perennials, producing growth during the spring and summer. Then, they die back into the ground in late fall and remain dormant throughout the winter season.
The sleep, creep, leap analogy is appropriate for peonies. Juvenile plants take three years to reach maturity and display their full beauty. While peonies will flower during the second year, the third year is when they reach full size and start showing off.
Late August to October is when bare-root peonies should be planted. Fall planting allows them to start their normal growth cycle as they enter dormancy in the cooling period of winter. During this period, the roots will have time to establish themselves, prior to the start of the spring growing season. If you plant peonies in the spring, you need to avoid bare-root plants and use container-grown plants instead.
Herbaceous peonies are excellent starter plants for beginners, offering a sweet fragrance and magnificent cut flowers. Here are a few of the Paeonia lactiflora varieties that seem to do best in the South:
• Festiva maxima has been a garden favorite for more than 150 years. Large, white double flowers with crimson flecks make stunning specimens in the early summer garden, and their strong stems are excellent for cutting.
• Kansas double is an American Peony Society Award-recipient variety, featuring double red blooms on erect stems. It makes an excellent background plant for spring bulbs, or in perennial borders.
• Paula Fay has early, semidouble blooms, which are beautiful in the garden, or as cut flowers. The deep pink petals are arranged in five rows around golden centers.
• Monsieur Jules Elie was introduced in 1888, and is still a favorite. These fragrant, double light pink blossoms with ruffled petals make a lush display.
Peonies prefer to remain in one spot year after year, where they will establish clumps and provide numerous blooms. Some growers suggest removing any buds during the first spring to concentrate the plant’s strength on root development. (I am not that disciplined!) If planting double varieties, it’s recommended to remove the side buds every year, leaving only the terminal flower bud on each stem. This practice, called disbudding, helps prevent stem breakage from weight and wind. It’s also good to get in the habit of using grow-through wire cages, placed over each clump before growth begins. The cage is invisible once the plant grows up, and it will help support the plant.
When planting peonies, there are five tips to remember:
1. Choose the right variety. Early blooming varieties of herbaceous Paeonia lactiflora are considered best-suited for growing in our area, U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone 7.
2. Provide soil, sunlight and shade. Peonies need at least four to six hours of sunlight per day, with some afternoon shade, which helps extend bloom life. Fertile, well-drained garden soil is essential, because peonies will not tolerate wet conditions at any time of the year. Clay soil should be amended with organic matter to improve drainage.
3. Plant at the best depth. Planting depth is critical for good blooming. The eyes of peony roots, or bullet-shaped pink buds growing from the crown of the plant, are easily seen on bare root clumps and should be planted, facing up, approximately 1 inch below the soil surface. Since all herbaceous peonies require a period of chilling to complete their dormancy needs, planting just below the soil surface ensures adequate drainage and aids winter cooling.
4. Leave space between plants. Good air movement is important to prevent disease. Extra space should be given around the plants to help water evaporate from leaves and stems.
5. Prevent fungal disease. Fungal diseases are problematic during cool, wet periods in the spring. To prevent disease, affected stems should be cut out and removed to stop spreading. As the plants begin to go dormant in the fall, cut them to the ground or a few inches above, which will allow you to identify their location in the spring. Then, remove all foliage from the garden to avoid reinfection in coming seasons.
For more information on adding peonies to your garden, visit www.hillsanddales.org, www.walterreeves.com and https://americanpeonysociety.org.
Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County Inc. (MGVOCC) is a 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and supports horticultural education programs and projects in Cobb County. Members have been certified by the University of Georgia Master Gardener program. For gardening questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk, UGA Cooperative Extension/Cobb County at 770-528-4070.
– Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County is a part of the University of Georgia Extension.