Complete guide on growing peonies. Everything from soil conditions to USDA zones to the ants that love peonies too. Including how and when to cut peonies for vases so you can enjoy them indoors. And most importantly, what you can do if your peony bush just won't bloom!
Peonies season is here!!! My favorite time of the year!
Now, every year when peony season rolls around I get tons of questions about peony care and how to grow them, so I thought I'd put all my answers in one place and give you some tips on how you can grow peonies too.
How To Grow Peonies
The 3 Groups Of Peonies
There are 3 groups of peonies - Herbaceous Peonies, Tree Peonies and Intersectional Peonies (aka Itoh Peonies). In this article we are discussing Herbaceous Peonies.
- Herbaceous peonies are the kind most commonly found in the garden and have fleshy stems that die back to the ground each winter and reemerge in the spring.
- Tree Peonies are woody shrubs native to China that stay above ground all year with just the leaves falling to the ground in the fall.
- Intersectional Peonies are a hybrid of the two varieties, producing flowers and leaves similar to the tree peonies, yet have the perennial characteristics of a herbaceous peony.
Best Zones For Growing Peonies
Peonies grow well in Zones 2-8, which means they require at least 30 consecutive days of freezing temps in the winter. No deep freeze, no go.
If you don't know your USDA Zone ((gasp!)), you can check it out on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. You just input your zip code and it spits out your Zone. Here in Central Ohio I am in Zone 6a.
If you live in a state that is too hot to grow these babies, my deepest condolences.
When To Plant Peonies
Peony bushes are either bought in ½ gallon or gallon containers from your local nursery or as bare root plants stored in wood shavings. If you are buying bare root peonies, make sure the tuberous roots have 3-5 eyes on them.
Peonies are best planted in the fall, but can be planted in the early spring 2-3 weeks before your last frost free date. And I will be honest, the nurseries and large hardware stores have a MUCH better selection of peonies in the spring than in the fall.
Do Peonies Require Full Sun Or Shade?
The best place to plant a peony bush is where it will receive 6-8 hours of sun per day minimum. But if by chance you are lucky enough to live in a much warmer climate, the peonies will appreciate some afternoon shade. And when I say appreciate, I mean they won't wither away and die on you and break your heart.
How To Plant Peonies
You want to pick out an area in your yard or flower beds that receive that 6-8 hours of sun per day.
They enjoy well-drained soil, so if you have clay, you'll need to amend the soil a bit.
Plant bare root peonies (peonies where the soil has been removed from around the tuber) no deeper than 2" below the soil line. Peonies that come in pots can be planted with the soil of the pot even with the ground's soil line.
Peonies that are planted too deep (or even think they are planted too deep) will not bloom. Be careful with putting too much mulch around the base of the plants, because that can trick them into thinking they are deeper than they are. I never said peonies were smart.
If planting more than one peony plant in the area, space them out 3-4 feet between plants to allow for future growth and adequate air flow between the plants.
When Is Peonies Season?
Peonies bloom once a year in the spring. They have a short bloom season, lasting 7-10 days, but it is a glorious one!
Depending on your zone and your herbaceous peony variety, your peonies will bloom between April and June. For instance here in mid-Ohio, I grow three different varieties of peonies and since they all peak at slightly different times, I have some sort of peony blooms from May 15th through June 15th.
How Long Does It Take For New Peony Plants To Bloom?
A little bit of patience is needed for peonies. Peonies do not often bloom the first spring after planting. Depending on how big they were when you planted them, it could take up to three years for them to bloom. Three excruciatingly long years.
That said, I plant the peonies that have been grown in pots and I normally have one or two lonely blooms on them the first year, a couple more the second year and then the third year they take off and never look back!
Peonies are really easy to grow and care for, but occasionally they just won't bloom.
Top 3 Reasons Your Peony Won't Bloom:
- It's a young peony and not established yet. It may take up to three years to bloom. Be patient.
- It's not getting enough sun. Peonies are little sunbathers and need at least six hours of sun a day.
- It's planted too deep. In the fall, when the plant is dormant, you can raise it up a bit.
How To Cut Peonies For A Vase
It's up to you if you prefer to enjoy the blooms on the plants in your garden itself or cut them off and bring them inside for flower arrangements. If you are planning on cutting them off and bringing them inside, you can either wait for the blooms to open on the plant and cut them at that time or you can also cut when in the bud state and enjoy having them slowly bloom in the vase for you.
I prefer to use both fully opened blooms and buds just starting to open in my peony arrangements.
BTW, I recently added a new article on Storing Peonies To Bloom Later in case you have a special occasion coming up you want to save some of your blooms for.
A bud can be cut before it opens up once it's in a soft "marshmallow" state (it's still in the shape of a bud, but is soft and squishy like a marshmallow). If the buds are too hard and tight (like a marble) they will not open once cut.
And then you've just wasted a peony bloom, and a peony bloom is a horrible thing to waste!
Psst - I made a quick little video to show you what the different bud stages look like and what exactly this "marshmallow" stage is!
If you prefer, you can watch an ad-free version of this tutorial on my YouTube Channel HERE.
Peonies And Ants
Ants are your friend. Well, actually that is debatable. Some people say they help the peonies to open and others say the ants just happen to like the sweet, sweet nectar of the peonies and have no actual beneficial purpose. In either case, they don't harm the peonies.
I just gently shake the ants off the peonies before bringing them inside. You can also dip them upside down in a bucket of cold water to get the ants off (ie drown the ants).
Like most women, most peonies need a little support and without it they will flop over onto the ground. Think of it as Spanx for your flowers.
I use the basic three legged metal peony rings that stake into the ground and they keep the stems upright.
But there are some peony plants that stand on their own. Normally they are shorter peonies or ones with very strong stems. Here's a nice article with photos on Peonies That Don't Require Staking.
Fertilize in early summer after you have deadheaded the spent blooms.
Use a 5-10-5 blend, keeping the fertilizer 6-18" away from the middle of the plant. The 5-10-5 refers to percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium respectively and should be listed prominently on the fertilizer package.
When planting a new peony bush, water it every couple days if it hasn't rained recently. Make sure to water around the base with a watering can to keep the leaves dry, since they can be prone to mildew. If you must water from overhead, do so early in the day so the leaves can dry out before evening.
Once they are established plants, water them deeply once every 10-14 days if it hasn't rained recently. Peonies aren't super needy for water, but if they get droopy and look wilted that is a sure sign they will need to be watered.
Also, putting a layer of mulch around the plants helps them retain moisture.
Peony Fall Care Tips
When leaves start to turn brown and fall off in early autumn you should cut the peonies to the ground. You can wait until the 1st frost, but I generally cut them in late September when I'm tidying up my beds for winter.
Simply cut all growth down to ground level and discard. Peonies can be susceptible to foliage diseases, so by cutting back in the fall you can reduce chances of any possible foliage disease carrying over into next year's plant.
NOTE: This only applies to herbaceous peonies. If you have tree peonies, they should not be cut down in the fall.
When To Transplant Peonies
Let me preface this by saying you don't ever HAVE to move your peonies. One of the best features of a peony bush is that you just plant them and enjoy them year after year. But in the case when something has changed and you do want to divide or transplant a peony bush into another area of your yard (building an addition to your home too close to your favorite peony bush for example), it's best to know when it's safe to move it.
Fall is the time to divide or transplant your peonies if needed. Your plants will be preparing for dormancy at this time, so it will be much less stressful for them to be moved elsewhere.
Exactly when in the fall will depend on where you are located. Here in Zone 6a (mid-Ohio) I can divide and/or transplant peonies in mid-September, whereas in warmer Southern states you would do it later in November. Far Northern states can do so in August.
- Cut your foliage down to ground level.
- Dig around the entire plant, pull it up out of the ground and then divide with a sharp spade.
- Just make sure you have 3 or more eyes in each new section to ensure you have a healthy, substantial plant to replant elsewhere.
- And then just follow the instructions in the How To Plant Peonies section above to get the new ones back in the ground correctly.
How To Choose A Peony Plant
Since peonies can live for decades and even generations choosing a peony for your garden can seem daunting. But you can narrow down your choices by flower type, fragrance and staking preferences.
There are 6 types of peony flowers - anemone, single, Japanese, semi-double, double and "bomb". I would suggest either looking at online catalogs for peonies or visiting your local nursery to get an idea of what type of flower you prefer. My personal favorites are the doubles and "bombs" because they have multiple rows of petals, are very full and really make a statement in the garden or in a vase.
The 2nd thing to take into consideration is fragrance. Do you prefer one with little fragrance or highly fragrant? The plant tag or the online catalog should tell you the fragrance level.
The 3rd thing I would look at is if they need staking. Most herbaceous peonies do need staking, but there are some that do not. If you plant an intersectional peony they generally do not need staking because they have woody stems.
Herbaceous Peonies That Do Not Need Staking Include:
- Krinkled White - this single flower type peony has crinkled white petals with gold centers
- Coral Sunset - a semi-double with coral pink ruffled flowers and gold centers
- Bride's Dream - pure white Japanese style flowers with thin white centers
- Buckeye Belle - a vigorous grower with very dark red semi-double flowers
- Bowl Of Beauty - gorgeous anemone shaped blossoms in rose pink with light yellow frilly centers
Favorite Peony Plants
If you are planning on planting more than one peony plant in your garden (and by all means, please do!!!), you have to choose whether you're going to plant more of the exact same peony variety or mix it up with lots of different varieties. Personally, I like to mix it up a bit in my peony bed!
These are three of my favorite peony plants. In chemistry flasks, because . . . why not.
Duchesse de Nemours is a beautiful white peony variety that was first introduced in the 1800's. It has creamy white double flowers with just a hint of yellow in the center and is wonderfully fragrant. You can't go wrong with this one!
Victoire de la Marne gives a much-needed POP of color! This bright fuchsia red variety has very large double flowers and is oh so pretty as a cut flower.
Sarah Bernhardt peonies are probably one of the most common peony varieties and for a good reason. Sarah Bernhardt peonies have large light pink double flowers backed up by glossy green foliage. They are easy to grow, have been around for over 100 years and they are readily available at most garden centers and big box stores.
Festiva Maxima is an heirloom herbaceous peony with huge, double, pure white blooms with dashes of raspberry pink sprinkled throughout the bloom. It is a favorite as a cut flower for vases and arrangements due to its strong stems and extra-long vase life.
Big Ben was introduced in 1943 and is an excellent grower with lovely fragrant flowers. The 5"-6" blooms are a bold cherry red color and sit atop sturdy 4' stems. Big Ben is terrific as a cut flower.
Karl Rosenfield is a classic peony with ruffled, deep fuschia-red double blooms. Flowers can be up to 8" across and make a huge statement in early summer arrangements.
Are you a peony lover? Have you ever gone completely overboard with them at your house?
More Frequently Asked Questions:
Is It Possible To Grow Peonies In Zone 9?
I get asked this question a lot! Although peonies grow BEST in zones 2-8, you may still possibly be able to grow them in zone 9 with a little extra care.
USDA Hardiness zones 9A and 9B can be found in middle Florida, southern Louisiana, parts of southern Texas, and parts of California to name a few. Zone 9 will be the outermost limit of being able to grow peonies.
In zone 9, make sure you:
- Keep them well watered in the summer heat so they don't have a chance to wilt
- Plant them in an area where they can enjoy some afternoon shade.
- Plant varieties that bloom early in the season so when they are blooming the hottest part of your summer hasn't hit quite yet.
It's definitely not a sure thing, but it may be worth it to try growing a peony in your climate.
Can I Grow Peonies In A Pot?
Yes you can!
You want to make sure you get a large enough pot to hold it (at least 1 ½ foot tall and 18 to 24" wide) and it MUST have drainage holes. Peonies don't like to sit in water as they are susceptible to root rot, so make sure you use a well-draining soil.
If you live in a cold climate, pull the pot into a sheltered area (porch next to house, carport, etc) in the winter. It needs to experience the cold weather in order to bloom the following year, but you don't want it to have a hard freeze.
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