how to plant, grow & care for peonies
- Written by:
- Sarah Raven
- Last updated:
complete growing guide
A classic country garden flower that also holds its own in a more formal setting, peonies have been bred and developed for thousands of years by the Chinese, Japanese and now the Americans. We stock both the traditional ‘lactiflora’ types and the more modern ‘intersectionals’ whose luscious flowers are held on woody stems and rarely need staking. Order your peony plants bare rooted for autumn or spring planting and you will be rewarded with a gradually increasing clump that will last for many years.
- Common name: Peony
- Latin name: Paeonia
- Type: Herbaceous Perennial
- Height: Up to 1m (3ft)
- TLC rating: Easy
- Aspect: Full Sun, Part Shade
- Planting position: Middle of border
- Suitable for pots: Yes, but not for long
- Good for pollinators: Yes
- Good for cut flowers: Yes
how to grow peonies
where to grow peonies
Soil type: Peonies like moist but well drained fertile and neutral soil. They also prefer heavier soils.
Aspect & position: Plant your peonies in full sun or light shade in the middle of the border.
when to plant peonies
Ideally, plant bare-root peonies while the soil is still warm in the autumn or as it warms up in the spring. Container-grown peonies can be planted at any time.
how to plant peonies
Bare-root peonies should be planted between autumn and early spring unless the ground is frozen or waterlogged. If you are not able to plant straight away, pot them on into a large container ready to transplant when conditions allow.
Remember to soak the root for about 30mins before planting. Peonies prefer heavier soils (but not waterlogged), in a sunny or lightly shaded position. I tend to dig a hole 5 times the width of the crown, and at least 1 and a half times the depth. Mix plenty of organic matter into the planting hole and add grit on very heavy soils.
To aid establishment, we recommend sprinkling Rootgrow into the base of the planting hole. Don’t plant too deep. The eyes of the peony roots should be no more than 3-5cm below the soil surface. Any deeper and they may not flower well. For the same reason, avoid mulching too much as this will gradually bury the crown.
Peonies are a long-term investment for your garden, they may not flower in their first year but be patient as flower production will increase as plants establish. As they can grow up to a metre tall, and spread the same amount, plant them a metre apart, preferably in groups of three to give plenty of flowers for cutting.
growing peonies in a pot
Herbaceous peonies are fine in a pot for a few years but their large root system will ultimately outgrow it. Shield from sun and use a soil-based compost with extra grit and lime.
how to care for peonies
Peonies planted in the ground don’t need watering unless it’s a very dry spring. Keep an eye on your peonies in pots as plants in pots are much more susceptible to over or underwatering.
In early spring apply a balanced slow-release fertiliser around the base of the plant and mulch, away from the crown, with well-rotted compost. It is important to avoid burying the crown otherwise it might stop flowering.
Once the lovely red shoots on your peony start to unfurl you need to think about staking. Some peonies will be sturdy enough not to need it, but most do, so a few deftly positioned twigs of birch or hazel can be woven around to support the flower stems as they start to come through. Alternatively, treat yourself to a peony support which will look attractive right through the growing season.
If you want whopping great flowers, de-bud the side shoots in April/May with a sharp knife. I prefer abundance to scale so don’t do this in my garden. Your plant probably won’t flower in the first year, you can cut the odd peony flower in their second year, but resist cutting too many until the third year.
In the early years it helps to deadhead after flowering to save the plant’s energy, but once they are established you can enjoy the jaunty jester cap shaped seed heads, often with brilliantly coloured seeds. In autumn it is best to cut your plants back — for best leaf colour hold off until mid-November.
Burn the old foliage to make sure you’ve got rid of any fungal spores. This reduces the chances of problems with botrytis which can cause peony wilt the following spring. Peony wilt causes the buds to look mouldy and the stems to wilt.
transplanting & dividing
Once your peonies have settled in and have formed decent-sized plants after 5 -10 years you can think about moving them and possibly dividing in autumn.
Once the leaves have died down lift the plant with a large fork and remove sections of the crown using a sharp knife with at least three dormant growth buds each and roots attached. These can then be moved to another part of the garden to increase your stock or potted up to hand on to friends and neighbours.
- Plant bare root peonies as the soil warms up.
- Feed plants with balanced fertiliser.
- Mulch around the crown with compost.
- Stake the plant with twigs or peony supports.
- Cut one or two flowers in the early years, increasing as the plant matures.
- Cut back foliage to avoid peony wilt and destroy.
- Move and divide mature peonies.
- Plant bare root peonies while the soil is still warm.
- Decide which peonies to plant in the spring.
pests, diseases & common issues
There are not many pests and diseases that attack peonies but the botrytis fungus is one of them. It is exacerbated by mild damp conditions, so make sure there is plenty of space between your plants to allow air circulation. Look for dark marks on the leaves and stems and remove immediately and destroy to stop the spores spreading.
peony leaf blotch
This is another fungal disease, caused by Cladosporium paeoniae, that creates unsightly spots on the leaves. As with peony wilt above, it will not kill the plant as long as you remove affected parts and clear the foliage at the end of the season to avoid reinfection.
why are there ants on my peonies?
As the flower buds open they exude a sugary substance that ants love. Don’t worry, they will not damage the plants, unless they form a nest among the roots.
why are there brown spots on my peony leaves?
This could well be a symptom of either peony wilt or peony leaf blotch.
why won't my peonies open?
This could well be a disorder known as “balling” when wet weather causes the outer petals to fuse around the flower and not allow the inner petals to open properly. Ensure that your peony is planted in an open sunny position, so that the buds can dry out after rain. If buds start to go mouldy remove and destroy.
why is there mildew on my peonies?
This white fungal growth is usually caused by damp shady conditions. Remove the affected leaves and think of moving the plant to a more open site.
why are my peonies dying?
Peonies are quite robust plants, so as long as they are planted in decent soil in open ground they should survive well. Plants in pots are much more susceptible to over or underwatering, so this could be your problem. Failure to thrive is often caused by overwatering - peonies hate this.
why are my peonies not blooming?
The usual reason for this is that you have planted the root too deeply or mulched over the crown too frequently. The eyes of the roots only want to be between 3 and 5cm below the surface.
frequently asked questions
are peonies evergreen?
No, peonies are either herbaceous perennials or deciduous shrubs – either way, they lose their leaves in the winter.
are peonies poisonous to dogs or cats?
Peonies do contain bitter tasting phenol compounds which thankfully keep deer and rabbits at bay. Given that reports of dogs or cats being poisoned by peonies are thankfully rare, presumably they don’t like the taste of them either.
do peonies spread?
Herbaceous peonies will gradually bulk up over the years to create a nice clump.
are peonies perennials?
They certainly are, and some have lasted up to 50 years in historic gardens. They do benefit from being lifted and divided occasionally as their flowering will slow down after about 20 years.
do peonies need ericaceous compost?
No, peonies like a neutral soil, preferring slightly alkaline to acidic soils.
can peonies be moved?
Yes, they can. Wait for them to become dormant in late autumn and lift the whole plant carefully, taking care not to snap the fleshy roots. They will take a year or so to re-establish, so do not move too frequently.
do peonies need full sun?
Peonies will grow in the shade, but they are unlikely to flower very well. A bit of dappled shade is fine and helps prevent the plant from drying out too much.
are peonies easy to grow?
They are, given that they do not suffer from too many pests and diseases. However, some people plant them too deeply so that they fail to flower.
what do peonies symbolise?
In China and Japan the peony is revered as an ancient and venerable flower, indeed it is the national flower of China, having been bred there for thousands of years. The roots of the herbaceous peony are still used in Chinese medicine, with some reference to their aphrodisiac properties.
what is a herbaceous peony?
These peonies, which die down completely in the winter months, have wild origins in a very wide area of Asia, as far north as Siberia and Tibet, Europe and North Africa. They grow in the wide-open areas of steppe or grassland, and can survive very cold temperatures as long as they do not get waterlogged.
what is a tree peony?
These are in fact woody stemmed sub-shrubs rather than trees as such. Tree peonies originated in the forests of China but have been cultivated for thousands of years in both China and Japan to create a huge array of sizes and colours.
what is an intersectional or Itoh peony?
These plants are a cross between the herbaceous peony and the woody stemmed tree peony. They were first bred in Japan in the 1960s and have become hugely popular in America with their big blowsy flowers in a wide range of luscious colours. We sell several cultivars: ‘All that Jazz’, ‘Julia Rose’, ‘Cora Louise’ being just three. Their form is more like a herbaceous peony in that they do not get tall and leggy, but their stems are woody so do not tend to need staking.
what to grow with peonies
Small spring bulbs such as snow drops and chionodoxa grow well around the base of the peonies, finishing flowering before the peony comes into leaf. The lovely red leaf buds can be accentuated by planting near epimediums with their delicate early spring blooms in warm reds and orange.
how to cut & arrange peonies
Float peonies, flower and all, in deep water in a bath overnight. Even if they’re already looking floppy and sad, most will recover and go on to last more than a week. The flowers can absorb water over their whole petal surface, so the more you can have in contact with the water the better. Peonies are very thirsty – at least to begin with. You must fill up their vase every day for the first three or four days they are inside.
Get more inspiration for displaying your flowers with our flower arranging videos: