Peonies

11 May 2022

Spring brings with it flowering shrubs: forsythia, lilacs, spirea (bridal veil), and the late spring blooming peony. They come in colors from white through the pinks and reds. They only grow to about three feet tall and will spread about the same or a bit more. Tree peonies will usually grow to about 5 feet.

Slow to start, it may take the plant up to three years to begin their blooming but once they do, they can live for up to a century. After they have bloomed and the blossoms fade, they provide foliage for the rest of the year, including the winter. This enhances the landscape and provides color during the drab winter months as well as habitat for some birds. Peony bushes make a good border plant and the blossoms are excellent in a cut flower bouquet.

Plant them in a place where they will receive at least six hours of sun daily. Afternoon shade will help protect the flowers from fading and tree peonies from sun damage. They need well drained soil to prevent root rot and fungus and a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. If your soil isn’t in that range, adjust before planting. Since they have such a long lifespan, a little work at the beginning will pay off through the years.

Plant or transplant in the fall. Excavate a hole 12 to 18 inches deep and a foot wide. Replace a portion of the dug soil into the hole in a mound. Place the roots so the tips of the buds, usually pink or red (called eyes) only an inch below the surface. You may wonder why you should dig the hole so deep if you only plant an inch below the surface. That is so the roots will have soft soil to spread their roots and secure a good hold through the winter. Segments with three to five eyes will mature quicker than those with only one or two eyes.

Water deeply. That allows the water to seep through that loose soil and settle at the bottom. The roots will seek that water and establish a more secure root system. While watering should be deep, give it time to be used, so don’t do it again for 10 days to two weeks. Adjust your watering schedule to the amount of rain you receive. The next spring and summer you will be glad they are drought resistant.

After the bloom is spent, remove it (deadheading). It won’t hurt the plant to leave them but it allows the plant to direct all its energy toward next year’s display. After a fall frost, remove any dead stems or anything that looks diseased. Throw these away; don’t compost. Don’t cut back tree peonies since they are actually shrubs and will not return if cut down.

The weight of the blooms may cause the stems to bend. You can purchase some hoops to help with this issue or just plant some stakes and use plant ties to keep them upright. When you want to cut the flowers for inside enjoyment, feel the buds. If it reminds you of soft marshmallows, cut them with at least three leaves per stem. Recut stems under warm water and remove any leaves that would come in contact with the water in the vase. They should open within a day.

Besides being a wonderful landscape plant, peonies attract the Spring Tiphia wasp (a beneficial insect) that feeds on the destructive grubs of Japanese and Oriental beetles. Peonies have few pests or diseases except possibly fungal problems.

So, if you are in the market for some shrubberies with relatively easy maintenance and have the right place for them, truly consider planting peonies.

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