A plant which heralds the coming of summer, peonies are some of the most loved of garden flowers. From herbaceous to tree peony, here's our guide on how to care for and grow peonies, written by experts including Claire Austin and Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall. Don't miss our piece on intersectional peonies.
How to grow peonies
Peonies will grow in most soils with adequate drainage, and like slightly alkaline conditions. In acid soil, add a handful of lime when planting. In light soil add well-rotted organic matter to boost moisture retention. Organic matter will scorch the emerging peony buds in spring, so mulch as far away from the central crown as possible.
Prepare the ground
Dig a hole 30cm deep. Mix well-rotted manure or compost and a handful of bone meal or general fertiliser. If planting a group of peonies, place about 75cm apart. Plant too deep and the peonies may fail to flower – the buds, which will form the shoots, should be no more than 2.5cm below the soil surface and the planting hole wide enough to accommodate the roots comfortably.
In full sun peonies will flower and grow more prolifically but in light shade the flowers last longer and fade less. James Kelway thought single peonies did better in shade than double peonies.
Most suppliers send out bare root peonies between October and March. Each peony root should have three or more buds. A white fungal bloom on peony roots is normal. Roots can be kept for a few weeks in a cold, dark place, in moist potting compost.
Prepare the ground
Dig a hole 30cm deep. Mix well-rotted manure or compost and a handful of bone meal or general fertiliser. If planting a group of peonies, place about 75cm apart. Plant too deep and the peonies may fail to flower – the buds, which will form the shoots, should be 2cm below the surface.
In flower peonies get top-heavy, especially in wet weather. In exposed areas, taller cultivars need staking. In average conditions, the following don’t need staking: ‘Buckeye Belle’, ‘Crimson Glory’, ‘Magic Orb’, ‘Shirley Temple’. Support taller cultivars when the stems are around 15cm high.
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How to care for peonies
In autumn cut down dead peony foliage at ground level and clear it away. Feed every three years in spring, top dress with bone meal or general fertiliser. If on heavy or sandy soil, mulch lightly with well-rotted manure or compost, in a circle about 15-20cm around the peony, avoiding the crown.
Peonies do not mind being moved – especially if they are not divided. If you want to divide plants, do this when they are dormant, from late October to the end of January, and ensure that each division has at least three buds.
Pests and diseases
Botrytis – peony wilt – can cause peony stems to rot and collapse, usually just before or after flowering. Cladosporium can cause brown blotches that turn black on the leaves from July onwards. There are no recommended chemicals to control these fungal diseases, but they are not normally a problem if you maintain a good air flow around the peonies, not overcrowding them with other plants, particularly at ground level. If stems rot or leaves turn spotty, remove immediately to prevent infection spreading. Flower buds exude a sweet, sticky substance that attracts ants, but these don’t damage the flowers.
Remove old leaves to discourage diseases. Peony wilt is worse during damp weather. If it becomes a problem, dispose of infected parts away from the garden or spray with fungicide.
Where to buy
- Binny Plants, Binny Estate, Ecclesmachan, West Lothian EH52 6NL. Tel 01506 858931
- Claire Austin Hardy Plants, Edgebolton, Shawbury, Shropshire SY4 4EL. Tel 01939 251173
- Kelways, Barrymore Farm, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ. Tel 01458 250521
- Primrose Hall Peonies, Westoning, MK455AH. Tel 01525 878924
Where to see
There are several impressive National Collections of peonies, from pre-1900, early 20th century and pre-1940s cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora to species peonies and herbaceous hybrids. For more details call Plant Heritage on 01483 447540 or visit the website at www.nccpg.com
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