Lush, extravagant, dreamy, beautiful… all are adjectives used to describe the peony, and she rightly deserves her coronation as “Queen of the Garden.” Peonies have graced the beds and borders at Hills & Dales Estate for at least a century and quite likely longer. They are incredibly long-lived, resilient perennials, but their penchant for cold winters prevents some gardeners this far south from either having success with them or even daring to try. One query that we often get in late April or early May, when guests see ours blooming, pertains to how we get them to blossom so luxuriously. There are some tips that will greatly improve a southern gardener’s success; so, peony lovers in zone 8a and cooler, take heart.
Before starting, let us clarify that we’re covering the culture of herbaceous (sometimes called bush) peonies in this article. These are primarily varieties of Paeonia lactiflora and they die back to the ground when dormant. There are other kinds—tree peonies as well as hybrids, but our focus will be on the herbaceous peonies. The first consideration should be whether you can provide them with the right location. Choosing a good spot can’t be stressed enough because peonies must have enough light to bloom well—at least four to six hours of full sun per day. A bit of afternoon shade is ideal if you can provide it, as it will help the flowers last longer should spring turn hot, but it’s not essential for success. Location is also important because you don’t have to dig up and divide peonies unless you want to create a new planting. In fact, they prefer to be left in one spot and not shifted around. Established clumps are the ones that are going to provide many lush blooms, so put them where they are going to be welcome to stay and stay. Think decades.
Now it’s on to poring over catalogs or websites in search of beauties to plant. Does it matter which ones? It most definitely does. In general, your best bets are those listed as early bloomers in order to maximize the peony potential of our region. Due to frequent mild winters, precocious varieties perform best because they typically don’t need as much chilling. Also, the flowers last longer if they open before it gets too hot. In their full glory, peonies certainly rule the garden, but they’re also regal in vases or bouquets. Just make sure not to cut excessive stems and foliage from any one plant during bloom. Many cultivars have the bonus of being wonderfully scented. If that is desirable to you, research those listed as such, but they should still be early bloomers. A general rule of thumb is that the most fragrant peonies are usually the doubles.
When is the best time to plant? Late summer or early fall is ideal, especially for bare rooted peonies. Order early when spring fever is upon you and they can be shipped at planting time. Planting depth is quite critical for good bloom. The fat, pink or white growth buds are easily seen on a bare root clump and should end up being one inch below the soil surface when planted. Make sure the planting hole has been thoroughly dug and amended in order for the peonies to be happy for a very long time.
We fertilize for growth in March using a mixture of slow release (3-4 month type) and organic fertilizers. We also lime, when necessary, to keep the soil pH at 6.5 to 7. Bear in mind that peonies do not perform well in very acidic soil. Water at least once a week during their first growing season to get them established. After that, watering isn’t usually necessary unless it’s exceptionally dry.
If all of these instructions have been followed, then success can’t be far behind. There are only a few more observations to be made. First, it would probably be best to remove any buds that might appear the first spring in order to leave the plant’s strength for getting rooted in. Also, if planting double varieties, we recommend removing the side buds every year, leaving only the terminal flower bud on each stem. This practice, called disbudding, helps prevent stem breakage from weight and wind. Even so, support is often necessary. We use “grow-through” wire cages placed over each clump before growth begins. They are hardly visible once the shoots extend and the leaves unfurl. If you notice ants on the buds and flowers don’t be concerned that they are doing any damage. They are attracted to the sweet nectar being produced and are only a problem if the flowers are being cut and brought inside. Using insecticidal soap on the blooms a few hours before cutting usually takes care of them. When bloom time is over, remove spent blossoms or seed pods (dead heading). The remaining dark green foliage is attractive in beds and borders for several more weeks. To ensure healthy foliage we practice disease prevention, spraying with a fungicide (Physan 20) once after they’ve leafed out and then again for clean-up after we cut them back. That brings up the next tip—the peonies at Hills & Dales are cut back in late summer, leaving about six inches of each stem. At this point, they’re done for the year. Unlike many perennials that get cut back in the summer, they will not put on any new growth until spring. That’s why we leave the six inches—otherwise it’s difficult to remember their exact location in a couple of months. Lastly, be sure to pull away any mulch before winter so the buds will be exposed to as much cold as possible.
Most of the peonies in the estate’s collection are cultivars that have been grown for many years. Our reigning queen would be the classic ‘Festiva Maxima’, a wonderfully scented double whose white petals with occasional red flecks are a treat we look forward to every spring. It is early and always tops the list of recommendations for the South. Another beauty is ‘Mons. Jules Elie’, which is very double and light pink. Both of these peonies hail from the 1800s. One of Alice Callaway’s additions is ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’, whose salmon petals display one of her very favorite colors to all who pass by. What a treat! Thank goodness spring will be here before we know it!