How to Grow Peonies: The Ultimate Starter Guide

Few flowers are more popular than the beloved Peony. These hardy perennials are long-lived and produce masses of blooms for a short but much-anticipated flowering season in spring and summer each year. They are also remarkably easy to grow in suitable climates, preferring as little fuss as possible to thrive. This article will cover everything you need about growing Peonies, including planting, care, cutting, and more.

Ultimate Guide to Growing Peonies for Beginners

What Are Peonies?

A cluster of flowering pink peonies

Peonies are popular garden plants and cut flowers from the Paeonia genus. This special genus is on its own in the family Paeoniaceae due to its unique growth habit.

Within this genus and family, there are around 30 different Peony species native to North America, Asia, and Europe. They are found in colder regions, explaining their need for cooler temperatures to trigger flowering.

Types of Peonies

There are three different types of Peonies, classified by their growth habits:

  • Herbaceous: The most common and popular Peony type, these Peonies have herbaceous stems – hence the name. They have a short blooming season, flowering for just under two weeks on average.
  • Tree: These are the woody-stemmed Peonies that are generally classified as shrubs. They are hardy plants that keep their foliage and don’t die back in winter as herbaceous Peonies do.
  • Itoh/Intersectional: Itoh Peonies are hybrids of the two aforementioned types developed by horticulturist Toichi Itoh from Tokyo in 1948. These types have some characteristics from both types, producing tougher plants and blooming for longer.

There are also different peony flower types given labels based on their shape, much like Dahlias:

  • Single
  • Japanese
  • Anemone
  • Semi-Double
  • Bombe
  • Full Double

There are many peony colors to choose from, from romantic red to vibrant orange. Pink Peonies are 

the most popular, with cream or white a close second. They are also available in deeper maroon, yellow, or multiple colors on one flower.

The Peony Flowering Season

A collection of peony flowers in bloom in a garden with lush green foliage and trees

The peony flowering season is incredibly short, which is why they are so pricey and sought-after. They begin flowering in late spring and continue through summer, depending on the species and variety chosen.

The length of the flowering season largely depends on the Peony type. Herbaceous Peonies flower around May or June for just under two weeks. Tree Peonies are early flowerers, appearing from April to May for around two weeks. Itoh Peonies are late bloomers, beginning in June and lasting about a month before dying back.

The exact flowering season will depend on your chosen Peony cultivar. They are split into early, midseason, and late-season varieties that, when combined, can significantly lengthen your Peony flowering season.

Try planting these different varieties together for a continual display:

  • Early Season: Claire de Lune, Firelight, Early Scout
  • Midseason: Shirley Temple, Karl Rosenfield, Singing in the Rain
  • Late Season: Sarah Bernhardt, Elsa Sass, Dinner Plate

How Big Do Peonies Grow?

The mature size of your Peony again depends mainly on type, species, and cultivar. Some will remain a compact 1 foot in height with smaller blooms, while others can reach a towering 7 feet tall under the right conditions.

Herbaceous and Itoh Peonies are generally shorter plants. They grow to around 1-4 feet tall, depending on the cultivar, with a spread of about 3 feet wide on average. Woody tree Peonies are much larger, growing between 4 and 7 feet tall on average. Their spread is also larger – around 4-5 feet.

Suitable USDA growing zones

Peonies generally prefer colder regions, growing in USDA Zones 2-9. The exact range will differ by type and cultivar.

Herbaceous Peonies appreciate cooler weather the most, growing best in USDA Zones 2-7 or 8. Tree Peonies perform better in slightly warmer ranges (4-9), while Itoh Peonies are the most tolerant of warm conditions up to USDA Zone 9.

Those who live in warmer regions should either opt for early-season herbaceous varieties to ensure the heat does not impact flowering or choose an Itoh or tree Peony instead. Cooler zones are perfect for herbaceous types as they need that dip in temperature to trigger blooming.

Growing Peonies from Seed vs Bare Root

A bare root peony in the soil

Peonies are generally purchased as bare root plants or from starter plants grown in pots at nurseries. These will flower within the first year, developing strong root systems and flowering true to your chosen cultivar.

The flowers do develop seeds that can be harvested and replanted. However, this comes with a few caveats. The flowers do not reproduce true to type, so the blooms you get may not look like the original plant. It also takes a long time for the plants to mature and eventually flower – around three years for tree or intersectional Peonies and 5 for herbaceous on average.

If you’re looking for a reliable plant that blooms quickly, opt for bare roots or starter plants. If you want to experiment with your peony collection and try something new, growing from seed is both exciting and rewarding in the end.

Planting Peonies

Peony roots showcasing early germination

Where to Plant

Peonies are not majorly fussy plants. All they require is a spot with well-draining soil and plenty of sunlight. Avoid areas where water pools after rain to prevent waterlogging and tuber rot.

For taller varieties, protection from wind is also important. The tall stems may require some support, so shielding from high wind channels will protect the stems from snapping and the blooms from dropping too early.

Can Peonies Grow in Pots?

Peonies are suitable candidates for growing in containers if some crucial criteria are met.

The first is the size of the pot. Even smaller cultivars have a large spread and extensive root system that requires plenty of space to grow. Large pots, preferably as large as possible, are essential to avoid stunting growth.

The second is drainage. The pot should have enough drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Your potting soil should also be amended with coconut coir and perlite to improve drainage and avoid tuber rot.

With these criteria met, your Peonies should grow happy in containers with frequent soil top-ups and feeding to improve nutrient levels.

When to Plant

Bare root Peonies are planted in early to mid-fall before the first frost occurs in your region. This gives them time to settle into the soil before the cold sets in, establishing robust root systems to pop up and flower the following spring.

If you’ve purchased a starter plant from a local nursery or online, they should be ready to plant in spring after the last frost has passed.

Light Considerations

A lavish full blooming peony flower growing under the sun

In the cooler climates that Peonies prefer, they appreciate full sun positions with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. More light will lead to stronger blooms – essential for these short-season plants.

In warmer climates, herbaceous Peonies need some protection in the afternoon to avoid overheating and wilted blooms. Give them full morning sun with some partial shade in the afternoons to protect the flowers.

Tree Peonies are slightly different from the full sun-loving herbaceous and Itoh Peonies. The delicate flowers are more sensitive to excessive sun exposure, preferring shade in the afternoons and full sun throughout the morning.

Soil Considerations

Despite their incorrect reputation as being difficult plants to care for, Peonies are not fussy about the soil they grow in. The most essential component is drainage. Beyond that, they can handle most soil types with ease.

If you have moisture-hugging heavy clay soil, amend with compost and river sand before planting. This will improve both drainage and soil fertility, preventing the tubers from rotting. Before planting, you can also add compost to any soil type to improve overall health and fertility.

Peonies grow best in slightly acidic soil with a pH just below 7. Again, they are not too fussed, but it’s best to amend before planting if your soil pH is on the more extreme end of the acidic or alkaline soil. Add sulfur to make the soil more acidic and lime to make it more alkaline.

Staking and Support Requirements

Lush pink peonies growing alongside a white picket fence

Due to their tall, fleshy stems, many herbaceous Peonies require staking. Their delicate foliage and soft flowers can quickly become damaged by high winds or rain, potentially ruining your flowering season. Shorter varieties may be fine without supports, but those reaching 3-4 feet in height grow far better with a bit of help.  

There are various support options available for these widely spreading plants. The first is known as a Peony ring – a circular structure that surrounds the plant and keeps stems upright.

If you prefer to use stakes, you can install four stakes in a square around the plant, creating a support by tying a piece of twine around each one. Much like the Peony ring, the stems will grow through this support, staying upright for the remainder of the season.

Other supports like tomato cages are also suitable but tend to ruin the overall look of the plant. The two previous options are largely hidden away once the plant matures, allowing you to enjoy their beauty to the fullest.

Install stakes soon after planting to avoid damaging the tuber later on. Make sure you account for the plant’s mature spread to prevent overcrowding.

As Itoh and tree Peonies have woody stems, they can support themselves through harsh weather and do not require staking.

Growing Peonies

A collection of full vibrant pink peony flowers in bloom

How Often To Water Peonies

Peonies are drought-tolerant plants that can largely survive on rainwater alone. This, of course, depends on your region’s rainfall and how established the plant is, so consistent watering is preferred in the first year or two after planting for a strong and healthy start.

Water your plant immediately after planting to anchor it is in the soil and remove any large air pockets around the tubers. Once new growth emerges in spring, let the soil dry out slightly before watering again until the plant is several inches tall.

Once mature, your Peonies can be watered weekly along with your other ornamentals. If there is rainfall that week, you can skip the watering. They may require additional water in summer when temperatures are high, but they don’t mind being left to dry out before watering again.

When planting in containers, your Peonies will rely on you for water. Containers dry out far quicker, especially in summer, and need to be consistently watered to avoid wilting and browning leaves. Wait until the container dries out almost completely before watering again – usually around once per week but potentially as often as every 3 days in summer.

Do Peonies Need Fertilizer?

Colorful peony flowers growing in a garden

Both new and established Peonies benefit from fertilizing once throughout the season. This boost of nutrients improves overall growth and flowering, ensuring you get the most out of your plants.

To improve flowering and strengthen growth, use a fertilizer higher in phosphorus and potassium. An NPK ratio of 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 is preferred, but any flower-focused bulb fertilizer is also suitable.

For newly planted Peonies, fertilize when the shoots are a few inches high to speed up growth and establishment. Established and mature Peonies are best fertilized right before they begin to flower to give them the boost needed to produce blooms.

You can also add well-balanced compost to the soil before planting and as a mulch later on. This will improve not only soil fertility but also overall soil health.

Weed Control

To avoid competition and keep the area around your Peonies tidy and pest-free, weed control is essential. Weeds, especially those that are allowed to take over the planting area, sap water, and nutrients from the soil and overcrowd the foliage, leading to the proliferation of pests and diseases.

The key to weed control is to start early. Make sure the planting area is completely weed-free before you get started. You can also add a layer of mulch a couple of months before planting to stop any seeds from germinating.

If any weeds do pop up, make sure to pull them as soon as you spot them while the roots are still tender. If they become established and entangled with the Peony roots, they will be more difficult to pull without damaging the main plant.

Avoid using herbicides, especially around the crown of the plant, as this can inhibit growth and impact surrounding plants and wildlife in your garden.

Diseases and Pests

Pink flower heads of the peony plant against green leaves and foliage

Peonies are not majorly prone to pest and disease problems with the right care. However, if the plant is overcrowded or in the wrong conditions, it can become host to several diseases and a few pesky pests.

Keep an eye out for these potential problems:

  • Tuber Rot: Caused by overwatering, leading to wilting, yellowing leaves, and lack of blooms.
  • Powdery Mildew: Fungus that grows in white patches along the leaves with lack of airflow, limiting photosynthesis and by extension, growth.
  • Nematodes: Tiny invisible worms that hide in the soil and attack the root system, causing stunted growth and yellowing.
  • Blight: Discolored spots appear on the leaves and stems, turning yellow, brown, or grey depending on the type of blight.
  • Verticillium wilt: Causes wilting and can quickly spread to other plants in your garden.

If you encounter any of these issues too late, you won’t be able to save the plant, and it will need to be pulled from the garden.

Prevention is your best line of defense. Make sure you space your plants correctly to improve airflow and prune away any areas of dense growth that can attract diseases. Water the soil rather than the entire plant overhead to stop water from collecting on the leaves and encouraging fungal growth. Keep your plants healthy and happy with the proper care to allow them to manage pests and diseases using their natural defenses.

Do I Need To Deadhead Peonies?

Unlike many perennials that push out more flowers when they are deadheaded, Peonies only produce one round of blooms. Deadheading will not encourage further flowering and isn’t an absolute necessity.

You can remove spent flowers to make the plant look tidier and focus the plant’s energy on flowering rather than seed formation, but those blooms will not come back once they have been removed.

How Long Do Peonies Bloom

A collection of red peony blooms and green leaves

Unfortunately, Peonies have a very short bloom time, with the popular herbaceous types only flowering for 7-10 days on average. Some cultivars have slightly longer bloom times but won’t flower for more than two weeks.

The same can be said for tree Peonies. They bloom for around two weeks on average, some slightly longer and some marginally shorter, depending on which you choose. However, they will keep their foliage for the entire year in the right climates, ensuring there is always something to admire even when the plant is not in flower.

For those looking for a long blooming flower, it’s best to opt for Itoh Peonies. These hybrids have the best of both plants – hardy stems, large blooms, and an extended bloom time to top it off. Appearing later in the season, around June, these flowers can bloom for up to a month, brightening summer gardens far longer than their relatives.

Growing Peonies As Cut Flowers

Cutting season is the time Peony gardeners spend all year waiting for. The exact cutting period will depend on your chosen type and cultivar, extending from April for tree Peonies to June for Itoh Peonies.

As soon as you see buds forming, grab your pruning shears and stay vigilant to find the perfect time to cut. If you cut too early, the buds will not open. If you cut too late, the blooms will only last a couple of days before wilting.

The ideal time to cut is what is known as the marshmallow stage. This is when the buds are still closed and soft when they are gently pressed. If they are still firm, the buds are not ready to be removed from the plant yet.

Cut early in the morning to beat the heat of the day. Use a sharp, disinfected pair of pruning shears to snip the stem off a few nodes past the flower at a 45° angle. Don’t cut too many leaves off the plant as they need to store energy before they die back in winter to allow them to come back strong the following spring.

Once indoors, remove the leaves on the part of the stem that will sit below the waterline. Place the stems in a clean vase, fill with water and move to a cool area away from direct sunlight.

How To Make Cut Flower Peonies Last Longer

Fresh cut pink peony flowers composed in a white jug

Peonies last around a week in a vase if picked at the right time. But, there are many practices and floral hacks that can extend the life of your Peonies as long as possible:

  • Change the water often. Oxygen in the water depletes over time, and stagnant water can attract pests and bacteria that lessen the vase life of the blooms. Change the water every 1-2 days or sooner if you notice it getting cloudy.
  • Keep the vase out of the direct sun in a cool area. Direct sun is the enemy of cut flowers, causing them to wilt and brown within a couple of days. The cooler the area you leave your flowers, the better.
  • Keep them in the fridge overnight. Florists use cold rooms for a reason – they majorly extend the life of cut flowers. If you have the space, pop the vase in the fridge overnight and bring them out in the morning.
  • Cut the stems every few days. By snipping about half an inch off the end of the stem, it is able to draw up more water, keeping the flowers looking fresher for longer.
  • Add a drop of bleach to the water. This inhibits bacterial growth that can cause flowers to wilt prematurely.
  • Add apple cider vinegar and sugar to the water. The apple cider vinegar improves water uptake and can inhibit some bacterial growth, while the sugar feeds the flowers.

Do Peonies Come Back Every Year?

Fluffy pink peony flowers in bloom

Peonies are long-living perennials that pop up each year to bloom better than the previous season. Herbaceous Peonies will die back in winter, but don’t worry – they will use the energy they stored before the first frost to sprout again once the weather warms.

Tree Peonies don’t die back (when temperatures are warm enough) and retain their foliage year-round. When not in flower, they make wonderful shrubs for beds to frame your other ornamentals.

No matter the type you choose, these plants will live for a long time with the proper care and can even outlive their owners.

Should You Dig Up Peony Tubers In Winter?

A peony root being dug up ahead of winter

Some cold-sensitive tubers, like dahlias, are best pulled from the ground in the fall, stored in a cool, dry area, and replanted in spring. However, this is not the case for peonies.

These hardy plants are incredibly tolerant of cold temperatures and actually need to be exposed to temperatures below 40F for extended periods to trigger growth when spring arrives. Without this period of cold, they may not flower the following season.

Beyond that, they are also resistant to disturbance and can struggle to establish when moved. Once planted in the ground, it’s best to leave them in the same position for as long as possible to avoid impacting growth or flowering for that year.

The only time you may consider digging up the tubers is to move the plant to a new area or to divide. This is best done in fall once the first frost has killed off the foliage. Cut the peony stems back, ensuring you do not damage any eyes on the tubers in the process. Gently lift the entire root system out with a garden fork and replant immediately.

Tree Peonies can also stay put year after year. However, as they are not as cold-tolerant as herbaceous types, they do benefit from some winter protection. Cover with a frost blanket in periods of extreme cold to protect the new growth and prevent cell damage.

Peony enthusiasts can join one of the many societies around the globe dedicated to the education and advancement of this beloved group of flowers. The American Peony Society was established in 1903 and provides several benefits, as does the Canadian Peony Society. You can also check your local resources for regional groups in your area.

Growing Peonies FAQs:

What month do you plant peonies?

Peonies are typically purchased as bare roots, planted in fall a few weeks before the first frost. Starter plants can also be purchased from nurseries in spring and planted as soon as the soil warms.

Do Peonies bloom the first year you plant them?

Bare-root peonies will bloom in the first year they are planted and, with the proper care, will continue to flower year after year. When grown from seed, however, it takes the plants several years to mature before they flower.

Can you leave Peonies in the ground over winter?

Peonies must be left in the ground over winter as they do not like to be disturbed and require cold temperatures to trigger flowering the following year. Herbaceous types don’t need any cold protection and can simply be left in the same spot undisturbed.

Do Peonies do well in pots?

Peonies can grow well in pots if the pot is large enough to accommodate the tubers and has enough drainage to prevent rotting. Choose a smaller type, around 1-2 feet tall, better suited to container growth.

Do you soak Peonies tubers before planting?

Peony tubers can dry out in transit and take slightly longer to establish once in the soil. Before planting, they benefit from a quick soak for an hour or two to give them a head start. Don’t soak them and leave them to dry out again – always plant immediately.

Wrapping Up 

Growing peony flowers is a truly rewarding addition to your garden. With some basic care and attention, you’ll soon have a flourishing array of peonies to enjoy for years to come. Enjoy!

Contributing Editor | | Full Bio

Madison is a writer and editor with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science. She writes and photographs for various online and print publications in the gardening sphere and is the author of the book The Next-Generation Gardener.

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