Growing Beautiful, Old-Fashioned Peonies
Your old and wizened Planet Natural Blogger was fortunate to grow up in a Midwestern city where the peonies always blossomed just in time for Memorial Day. Grandma and grandpa were growing peonies in abundance on the sunny side of the house and all around their vegetable garden. We’d collect big bundles of the beautiful flowers, softball size and larger orbs of pink and white, wrap them in damp newspaper, lay them in the trunk of a car, and take them to the cemetery.
Even as a kid I saw them as the perfect graveside decoration, their big flowers causing the stems to bend towards the ground, their large, colorful petals shedding like tears on to the ground. And it was always a joy to visit cousins up north later in the season and find peonies in bloom all over again.
Peonies are easy to grow and are a wonderful addition to borders and garden displays. They have beautiful dense foliage which makes them look great in clusters even after all their blossoms have been clipped. They’re usually grown from tubers planted in the fall but occasionally can be found at select nurseries growing in pots and ready for transplant early in the season.
The best and most traditional way to obtain the tubers is from a neighbor. Peonies don’t need to be divided as often as some tuberous plants. They can go five, ten and more years without any problem. Digging up one clump in the fall to giveaway or to locate in other parts of your yard always yields rewards. The tubers should be separated carefully, making sure each has at least three eyes — more is better — and look healthy. Discard any that are bruised, show rot, or are hosting some kind of fungus.
Plant the tubers at least one or two inches under soil that’s rich in organic material. This will help prevent problems, especially with drainage, later on. Planting them deeper than two inches will inhibit blossom production down the line. Give them a heavy watering and mulch them well to get through the winter. (Peonies are especially cold hardy with a little protection…see “cousins up north” above.) After they’ve come up in the spring and are three or four inches tall, hit them again with a good layer of compost. Your peonies won’t blossom the first year and maybe not the second, Enjoy their beautiful foliage and wait for their blossoms. It’ll be worth it.
Problems? (Scroll down.) Too much nitrogen will inhibit blossoming… that’s why we recommend compost. But a good well-balanced organic fertilizer applied early in the spring shouldn’t hurt. Ants will often be seen roaming the blossom heads of peonies. They won’t do any harm. They’re there to collect the sweet liquid that’s secreted by the buds.
There’s also a tree peony (as opposed to the garden, bush peony) that grows in well in damper, cloudy areas and can reach heights of five feet or more. We don’t have any experience growing them but have seen them in botanical gardens in the Pacific Northwest. Lovely!