Peonies are absolutely my favorite. They can carry a scent, bloom profusely, make great cut flowers and even have fall interest. However, peonies generally do not like the “famously hot” south. It’s just too warm for them. Here are some tips that can help you succeed with peonies.
How to decide!
First, peonies need at least 32 hours of sub-zero temperatures in order to bloom. The winter of 2015-2016 was very mild, and as a result my peonies did not bloom well. This winter, we’ve already had a pretty good cold snap with more than five nights in a row in the low 20s. This bodes well for my peony bloom potential!
Next, peonies come in thousands of varieties. Choose a variety that will tolerate the heat. “Sarah Bernhardt” is a good choice, although common. To find other varieties that will tolerate the heat, use the heat zone index that should be part of the variety description. You’ll find that peonies can be listed as high as zone 8, which means they’ll be a better choice for our Famously Hot area. Once you’ve gotten these down, then choose your characteristics. These can be fragrance, bloom shape, single, double, color, height, sun and shade.
Don’t be tempted to buy the lovely blooming plant in the spring. They are so much more expensive, and will likely not bloom again the following spring because they’ll still be settling in. Plus they are probably twice the price of buying the bulb on line.
I chose mine with an eye to similar colors. I wanted an indoor bouquet that had varying shades of pink and was fragrant. You can see my small collection from last year here
how to plant
Choose your site carefully. Peonies do not like to be moved. You can’t dig them up and move them frequently if you want them to bloom. It’s likely they will not bloom at all the first year in the ground. Mine are planted where they get a maximum of five hours of early sun, then are shaded for the rest of the day. This despite the variety’s label of “full sun”. I learned from experience that having them in the full sun all day burned the leaves. They should be planted with the eyes of new buds at the surface of the soil. Don’t bury them. Peonies buried too deep will not bloom. Since it takes two years to get a good bloom show, if you have to lift them, you’ll wait another two years for a bloom.
Like all plants, plant them in rich loamy soil with good drainage. That means you’ll need to amend our heavy clay or sand. Add lots of organic matter to a hole about two feet across, back fill the hole and water your mixture to get it to settle. If you don’t do this, you’ll likely have so much air in the hole that it will back fill and your peony will be planted too deep.
Planting a peony in the spring is not practical. Ideally, plant them in the late fall so they can settle in and be ready to step on the gas when spring comes. But it’s not too late even now to plant them. We are lucky in South Carolina – we can plant at any time as long as the ground is not frozen. So there is still time to get them in the ground for a possible spring bloom.
Peonies need light fertilization, although mine have bloomed when I’ve neglected to fertilize at all. They need regular watering until established. Most of all, they just need to remain undisturbed.
By the fall, the foliage will be drooping and looking puny. Pruning at this time will help prevent diseases. You’ll want to trim off the dead foliage to show off the blooms.
I have tomato cages around my peonies and the stems grow right up through the center. I do this in lieu of staking them. The blooms are so large that they will drop to the ground if unsupported. Another idea is to put five stakes in the ground, surrounding the center of the peony. Then tie string in a five-point star shape about two feet off the ground and allow the peony to grow up through the string. Planning ahead for the staking will make it easier.
Your peonies will have large, black ants on the buds. Its just a part of growing them. Popular myth holds that the ants help open up the buds. I’ve read that this is not true. The ants are attracted to the sweet scent the bud has already started to emit. These ants are harmless. They seem to appear out of nowhere to cover the buds and then disappear completely. Like most everything in life, peonies come with this hitch.
why i love them
A peony bud is perfectly round. As they open up, they retain this round shape that remains nearly perfect. The buds are huge, and then as they open up they seem to continue to reveal the petals of the flower almost magically. They make great cut flowers due to their sturdy, long stems, but the blooms are so huge they may need to be staked.
As cut flowers, they really last if they are in a cool environment. I’ve had them last two weeks – far longer than a rose. Just keep them watered and cool. Don’t place them in a sunny window as this will burn the petals.
And the fragrances! I have one that is called “Passion fruit” that is a pinkish orange with a very spicy scent. Sarah Bernhardt is a sweeter scented variety and reminiscent of a rose. The aroma will fill a room.
They are easy to grow, once you have them in the ground at the right height and in the right place. You never need to move them, they have lovely foliage, and are relatively problem free. They can get black spots on the leaves, but this will not kill the peony and is likely to not come back after the winter.
And they will live longer, likely, than you. Peony varieties have been known to live 100 years or more. A friend of mine has some planted in the garden of his historic home built in 1774. They are still blooming. The variety is lost to time, but the plant continues to flourish.
There is a reason that peonies are the flower of China – they are the perfect cut flower. Long lasting, beautiful, fragrant, and large. Roses don’t last that long, dahlias aren’t fragrant. You just cannot beat a peony!