Sarah Bernhardt Peony blooms from the writer’s garden. (Photo credit Lisa Derx)

Herbaceous peonies have been grown and prized by gardeners around the world for centuries. The lush, full blossoms have been revered in Asian cultures, painted by artists from amateurs to Auguste Renoir, and carried by countless spring brides. Their beauty and fragrance make a lovely statement massed by themselves, in mixed bouquets, or as a single stem. Often called the Queen of the Garden, they are surprisingly easy to grow, and, if well situated, will bloom happily for decades.

Where to Purchase

Peonies are propagated by root division. It’s the lucky gardener who has neighbors, family, or friends looking to divide established plants and willing to share. Failing that, make sure you purchase roots from a reputable supplier. Check carefully to see the eyes — the short, red stems you’ll see poking out of the root. The more eyes, the sturdier the plant and the more blooms you will have. Companies specializing in peonies include Peonies USA, Hollingsworth Peonies, and Adelman Peony Garden.

Growing Conditions

Peonies require cold in order to thrive, and they are hardy in zones 2-8. Peonies need full sun to bloom, and full sun means six or more hours a day of direct sun. They prefer loose, well-draining soil. Leave plenty of room around the plant for air circulation. Many varieties need three to four feet of growing space. Fertilize when the plants first push through the earth in spring with a low-nitrogen fertilizer.

Monsieur Jules Elie peony variety from the writer’s garden. (Photo credit Lisa Derx)

When to Plant

Although garden lore says to plant or transplant peonies only in fall, early spring works well, too. And, when I needed to transplant a generous gift of established plants in July because of a house sale, the peonies suffered no ill effects from being dug and replanted on one of the hottest days of the year. Get them into the ground as soon as you can after purchasing. If in the fall, you want to give them time to establish themselves before winter. They prefer being planted shallowly, with just two inches of soil covering the root. Water well upon planting. 

Festiva Maxima peony from the writer’s garden. (Photo credit Lisa Derx)

When to Harvest

First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap! First year peonies will produce only one or two flowers. Second year will have four or five, and the third year you will see an abundance of blooms. Some popular cultivars such as Sarah Bernhardt may produce 20 stems from one plant! For longest vase life, cut them before the bloom has opened completely. This may mean checking several times a day, as the sun will make the flower open fully very quickly.

A colorful peony arrangement created by the writer with flowers from her garden. (Photo credit Lisa Derx)

Storing Peonies

Here in the mid-Atlantic, peony season is fast and furious, and flowers have come and gone within just a few weeks. Try planting early and late varieties to extend the bloom season. You can also try harvesting the blooms whilst still in bud, and storing them in a refrigerator or cooler. To do this, hold your hand palm up, with your first two fingers on either side of a peony bud. Press your thumb on the bud. If it is hard, leave it to mature. If it feels soft, like a marshmallow, cut it, wrap loosely in newspaper, and store for a few weeks. Remove from the cold, re-cut the stem, and place in water. The blooms will open beautifully, although their vase life may be a little shorter than when fresh. 

Diseases

Peonies can easily fall prey to botrytis, a fungus. To prevent this, spray with copper or another fungicide in early spring.

Fall Care

Leave the beautiful foliage on the plant all season, as the foliage feeds the root so you will have healthy blooms the following year. In fall, cut the plant to the ground. Dispose of the foliage in the trash if it has botrytis, as it can spread easily. Mulch the ground around the peonies with chopped leaves, just be sure the crown is not covered too deeply.

This is just the basics about peonies. These plants fascinate with their history, their varieties, and their cultivation, and their beauty is captivating. One way to learn more is through the American Peony Society. This group has a wealth of information about propagating, planting, and harvesting, as well as an extensive list of hundreds of varieties. https://americanpeonysociety.org/

Do you have a favorite peony? Tell me about it at [email protected].

Lisa Derx is a member of the American Daffodil Society, Membership Chair for the National Capital Dahlia Society, President of Chesapeake Flower Exchange, Local Flowers Liaison for the Independent Floral Designers Association, and a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flowers and the Maryland Cut Flower Growers Association. Her home is in Dayton, Maryland, where she lives and grows flowers with her husband Dan and cat Sebastian.

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.