Peonies are a plant that most people know and wish to have in their yard but are often unwilling to plant. Compared to other perennials, they are always expensive to buy. The mystery as far as how to divide and where to plant and when to divide also deters some people from growing them. Still many people want them because grandma or their Great Aunt Tillie had them. They are a very durable plant that seems to take very little care. Peonies will live for a century or more without human inputs. Don't believe me? Find an old cemetery and visit it in May! I have seen places where the peonies have been shaded by big trees. The peonies were probably there first!
There are three main classifications of peonies:
- Herbaceous peonies are usually what grandma had. Blooms come in shades of white, pink, and red; single or double. By definition, being herbaceous, they will die back to the ground each year. They have dormant eyes in the fall as big as your fingertips. Herbaceous peonies have a very large root system that is quite fleshy. Since the roots are toxic, rodent damage is not a problem.
The plants we sell in the spring start with 9 to 11 eyes on a clump grown in a 5-gallon pot. Even ours are not cheap. The labor of digging and dividing them is considerable and fairly specialized. Our roots come from northern Iowa where they have wonderful deep, rich soil perfect for growth and somewhat easy digging (compared to our rock patch).
If you are going to dig, divide, and reset herbaceous peonies (say, from an existing clump you or Great Aunt Tillie have), October is the best time to so. When digging up your existing plants, be sure that you do not destroy the giant roots. Also make sure that each division has several eyes on it - no eyes, no growth. Plant peonies in full sun in well-drained soil with the eyes set 1 to 2 inches below the soil. If planted much deeper, the plants will grow just fine but will not bloom.
You can divide peonies if you want to; however, they can go for decades without being divided so it is not necessary.
Although peony blooms usually have ants on them, they will bloom just fine without the ants. The ants are attracted to the sweetness surrounding the buds before they open.
One common problem with peonies is botrytis blight. The stems wither and die with this blight. Entire stems can die or just the bloom buds. Always remove all the stems and leaves in the fall to remove any blight spores that could infest next year's flowers.
- Tree peonies - In bloom these are amazing, but we don't offer them anymore. Tree peonies are grafted plants with the grafting done only in China. Many are not true to name and so do not bloom the colors people expect. Because they do not bloom the first year, we can't see the flowers before we sell them. Customers are understandably miffed when their pink tree peony blooms red two years later! After several years of 75% or more mis-types and all of the irritation that came our way because of that, we have decided to just not grow them anymore.
Tree peonies do not need to be divided ever! They make a nice shrub 3 to 6 feet tall and wide.
Site tree peonies intelligently in a sunny location with well-drained soil with enough room to grow and you will have them for a very, very long time. Make sure that the buds are at least 4" below the soil surface so the rootstock doesn't take over!
Tree peonies are worth growing as long as you will be content with potential surprise colors. Once you see the bloom color, that is the color it will always bloom. If you like it, keep it. If you don't like it, get used to it. (All tree peonies are grafted in China, so buying from any source has that chance of being mis-identified.)
- Itoh peonies - These are named after a Mr. Itoh of Japan who first crossed herbaceous peonies with tree peonies. His intent was to get hybrid vigor as well as getting some of the flamboyant colors of the tree peonies into something that would actually grow for us mortals.
The Itohs do what Mr. Itoh hoped for: The blooms come in amazing shades of pink, lavender, yellow, and red. They are huge! The plant will have eyes slightly under ground as well as often having short above ground permanent branching (unlike the herbaceous ones that die clear to the ground in winter).
Itohs bloom about the same time as herbaceous peonies, but have a wide range of bloom times so can still be in bloom a couple weeks beyond the herbaceous ones. Like all peonies, they cut well, lasting a week or so and water.
Plant Itoh peonies with some eyes and inch or two below the soil but no deeper: there can be some eyes on some of the branching above the soil. Give them a sunny location with well- drained soil.
The Itoh peonies we offer are shipped to us as big roots and we pot them into 5-gallon pots. The roots are heavy for shipping which adds to their expense, but the roots themselves are expensive for us, so Itoh peonies are one of our most expensive plants.
One of the biggest complaints we get about herbaceous peonies is that they don't bloom. Here are the top reasons why herbaceous peonies do not bloom:
- The roots are planted too deep (or too shallow).
- The plants are fed too much nitrogen fertilizer
- The plants are overfed. Peonies thrive with little fuss and limited amounts of fertilizer.
- The flower buds were killed by late frosts, botrytis blight, or excessive heat.
- The peonies were grown in too much shade.
- The plant is too young.
- The plant has been moved or divided too often.
- The plant was cut back in the fall before the foliage had died back.
- The soil is too wet or too dry.
- Occasionally, the plants may be over crowded.
We hope this info helps take the mystique and fear out of growing peonies. They are very garden worthy and worth the price when you consider their longevity!
Variety Spotlight #15, 4/1/2018 © Hilltop Farm
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