The peony is a lush perennial that grows up to three feet tall. It has large, showy flowers that are often heavily scented. Peonies bloom in late spring and early summer, with flowers of red, purple, pink, yellow, or white. The blooms, while gorgeous, have a lifespan of just 7 to 10 days. Peonies are a popular garden choice for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are easy to grow and their cut blooms make an attractive addition to floral displays.
If you take your time preparing the soil and planting your peony, it is a wonderfully unfussy flower. Planting season is in the fall, when the peony is dormant. Don't wait too late in the year, though. You want to give the plant at least six weeks to settle into the soil before the first freeze.
The peony has a shallow root system, which means they can struggle to find water if the ground becomes dry. An established peony plant can tolerate short-term drought conditions, but a younger plant will not fare as well. If the foliage appears dry or is discolored, or the flower buds are wilted, the peony is probably lacking water. If you are in doubt, stick your finger into the soil beside the plant. Soil that is dry an inch or so below the surface indicates the peony is not getting enough water.
Peonies do best with between six and eight hours of sun a day. If you live in a hot climate, planting them in a location that provides some protection during the heat of the day is beneficial. While access to sufficient sunlight is important, so is air circulation. Planting in an area that allows the air to move around the plants helps reduce fungal problems.
You can grow peonies in containers, but they need plenty of room. Use a pot that is at least 18 inches deep and at least as wide. Choose one with drainage holes to help keep your plant healthy. The soil should be moist, but don't overwater. Frequent, small waterings are better than flooding the soil once a week.
Peonies are not overly picky, although they do best with well-drained soil. Slightly acidic soil is preferable. If you live in an area with high clay content, work some compost or soil mix into the soil while preparing for these acidic-leaning plants. Taking time to prep the soil before planting is more beneficial than adding compost or fertilizers afterward.
Peonies are generally hardy, although some pests find them attractive. Nematodes can attack the roots, and less often, the leaves of the plant. Scale insects can attack late in the summer. Thrips also attack the peony, and their damage can prevent fledgling blooms from opening. Depending on your location, the biggest problem may be deer and rabbits snacking on the young, new growth early in the spring. While a nuisance, this generally does no long-term harm.
The most common disease that affects peonies is gray mold, a result of too much dampness in the soil and air. The new growth rots, the stems appear water-logged, and shoots cannot support their weight. Leaves develop brown or black spots. Peony blotch can also attack the plants. Young leaves develop purple or red spots, which gradually spread over the entire plant. While blotch doesn't kill peonies, it does weaken them long-term. Most diseases that affect peonies are caused by a lack of air circulation around the plant. If you have repeated issues with mold or blotch, consider relocating the plants in the fall.
Peonies can live for a remarkably long time and do well with little special care. To help your peony produce show-stopping blooms and fight off disease and pests, provide a low-nitrogen fertilizer once a year. Bone meal worked into the soil can strengthen the root structure and help the flowers set. Work these amendments into the soil after the plant has about three inches of new growth.
Peonies are easy to propagate as long as you have a healthy plant. Wait until the plant goes dormant in the fall, then cut back the spent foliage. Using a garden fork, lift the plant gently out of the soil. Use a sharp, sterilized knife to remove a section of the crown that contains at least three buds. Make sure to include a healthy section of the root, as well. Replant your existing peony and your cutting immediately.
The large, showy blooms of the peony plant are one reason they are so popular, but they can create problems for your plant. If your plant is struggling under the weight of the blooms, add structural support. A specially designed peony ring or even a tomato cage can help support and protect the stems. As each bloom fades, deadhead the blossom, cutting back to the nearest leaf. Don't leave any bare stems extending beyond the leaves.