Peonies — low maintenance and long living
Peonies can live for a hundred years. If you want a peony that will out-live you, choose a location that has at least six hours of sun in the morning, shade in the afternoon, good drainage and not crowded by other plants. You will be rewarded for your efforts by an abundance of blooms in the spring.
The best time to plant peonies is in the fall before the first hard frost.
There are many reasons to plant peonies aside from the beauty of the flower and its lovely fragrance. It is a disease and deer resistant plant, that is cold and drought hardy. It is also low maintenance. Herbaceous peonies grow to approximately three feet in height and are mound shaped. There is a tree variety that can grow to 6 feet. Differing flower forms such as spider and single or double blooms create added interest.
While the peony is native to the Western United States, it does not perform well in areas that don’t get cold. Without cold, a peony is unable to form buds. Check the zone recommendation before acquiring a peony as different cultivars have been developed for specific areas.
To plant a peony, dig a hole that is 12-18 inches deep and slightly wider, three to four feet away from other plants. Loosen the soil at the sides. Into this hole, add a shovel full of compost or some bone meal. Begin filling in the hole to a depth where the nodes at the base of the crown are no more than two inches below the soil surface. Any deeper and the foliage will be lush, but the plant will not bloom. Peonies do not need to be divided. Should you want more plants or wish to share the plant with others, carefully lift the entire plant from the ground. Use a sharp knife and carve out clumps of root that have at least three to five eyes per clump. Reposition the plant, gently handling the brittle roots. Water the plant well. It may take the plant three years to begin blooming. Be patient, the blooms are worth the wait.
Deadhead flowers after blooming and cut the entire plant to the ground in the fall after the leaves have turned yellow. While not necessary, a general fertilizer can be applied after flowering in the spring and the plant can be mulched once it is cut back. Remove the mulch in the spring to expose the shoots to light.
Peonies make lovely cut flowers that can last more than a week. These plants are often covered by ants. This is normal. Please don’t be tempted to use an insecticide to remove the ants. The ants and the plant have formed a symbiotic relationship. In return for the nectar, ants attack bud-eating pests. Although peonies are disease resistant, if crowded and not receiving good air circulation, they may be attacked by a fungus (botrytis). Parts of the plant will turn black.
Remove this diseased portion and dispose of the waste in a trash can. Peonies dislike being moved so it might be best to move other plants should overcrowding become an issue.
Investigate the type and color peony you prefer. Plants can be acquired now from a local nursery or ordered in the spring for planting in the fall. — Bonnie Balis is a Virginia Master Gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Prince George County Office. Virginia Master Gardeners are volunteer educators who work within their communities to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management education and training. Virginia Master Gardeners bring the resources of Virginia’s land-universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University to the people of the commonwealth.