by Ken Lain, the Mountain Gardener
Your grandmother would fall in love with these larger varieties with so many colors to choose from. There’s nothing like the enormous flowers to add vibrant stunning pops of color. Lovely springtime blooms are more than fragrant with luscious double flowers. Perfect for cut flowers in a spring bouquet. These hard mountain varieties take the brutal sun, wind for decades of perennial enjoyment. Deer are Javelina will ignore these peony beauties.
By some estimates, there are 33+ different species within the genus Paeonia, known collectively as peonies. Most are traditional herbaceous perennials, though a few are woody shrubs. Peonies have tuberous roots that combine thick storage roots and thin roots designed to absorb water and nutrients.
Botanical Name Paeonia
Common Name Peonies
Plant Type Perennial flower
Sun Exposure 6+ hours Full sun
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH 6.5 to 7.5 pH
Bloom Time Late spring thru summer
Flower Color Wide range
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9, USDA
Native Area Asia, Europe, and Western North America
How to Grow Peonies
Peonies are classic garden plants that can thrive for decades with minimal care when planted in a spot they like. One of the longest-lived garden plants, it is often handed down generations in families. But it is essential to do the initial planting correctly because peonies can be temperamental about being moved once they are established.
Give each peony plant 3-4′ feet of space to grow without being crowded. Peonies are especially prone to gray mold (botrytis) when planted too closely, and air cannot flow freely between plants. Choose a location that is sheltered from strong winds. Plant your peonies well away from other trees and shrubs since they don’t like to compete for nutrients and water.
Peonies like cold winters. To set flower buds, properly plant this perennial close to the garden surface, no more than 3″ inches deep. Peonies actually need this chilling to attain dormancy and set buds. Bloom time for peonies varies from late spring to late summer.
Peonies need a location that receives at least 6+ hours of sun each day, and a full day of sun is even better. Without sufficient sunlight, fewer blooms and smaller flowers are expected. Powdery mildew is also an issue in shade gardens.
Peonies are very adaptable; they do like well-drained soil. Watters Premium Mulch makes it easier for your plant to settle in when planting in heavy clay soil. Since peonies can remain in the same spot for upwards of 70 years, preparing the soil before planting is time well spent.
Peonies need moist, well-drained soil to thrive. Ideally, they should receive 1 to 2 inches of water weekly. Mulch your peonies to help them retain water and lessen the likelihood of weeds. Water regularly – weekly, or more often in extreme heat or containers. This plant prefers consistently moist but not soggy soil. Water whenever the soil begins to dry out due to a lack of rainfall and/or hot weather.
Temperature and Humidity
Peonies prefer cooler areas (hardiness Zones 3-8 and do best when they experience cold winters.
Keep this evergreen perennial happy by feeding 3x times per year with 7-4-4 All Purpose Food (March, July, and October).
Potting and Replanting
Peonies are typically purchased as potted plants in 1-2 gallon containers at Watters Garden Center. When choosing potted peonies, look for healthy specimens without leaf spots or weak-looking stems. A mature peony will be up to 5 years old before mature enough to bloom. Peony eyes start off as small reddish buds, similar to the eyes of potatoes.
Transplanting should be done carefully to avoid disturbing the roots any more than necessary. These plants thrive in the same spot for decades, but moving one hastily often causes decay. Autumn is the ideal season to move a peony.
- At the new planting site, till up the soil 12 to 18 inches deep and mix in a 4-inch layer of Watters Premium Mulch.
- Water the peony plant with 1 inch of water one or two days before transplanting. Your peony must be well hydrated before moving it.
- Dig around the peony root ball using a sharp spade, getting as much soil as possible.
- Slide a tarp under the root ball to keep it intact, lift the plant from the ground, and carefully carry it to the new garden spot.
- At the new location, dig a hole twice as wide as the peony’s root ball and exactly as deep as the root ball.
- Plant your peony at precisely the same depth as it was in its old location. Backfill around the plant. Tamp the soil down with your hands, but do not pack it too tightly.
- Water thoroughly. Add a 3-inch layer of Watters Premium Mulch around the base of the plant. This will keep the roots moist and cool while the plant is establishing in its new location.
Peonies are best propagated by lifting and dividing the root clump, then immediately replanting the divided pieces. A peony may require this after about 10 years when it begins to lose its vigor and becomes root-bound. Autumn is the best time for this activity.
- In the fall, just before you plan to divide, cut the foliage back down to ground level.
- Dig up the entire plant and remove as much soil as possible by soaking it with a hose.
- Using your hands, manipulate the roots into dividable portions, each with three to five eyes, then use a sharp knife to cut the tuberous root clump into divisions.
- Cut off the tiny roots on each division, leaving only the large, fleshy roots.
- Replant the divisions as soon as possible, following the instructions above.
Fern Leaf Peonies
Fern leaf peonies are planted and cared for like standard peonies, but it is crucial to keep them well watered. Feed them each October with Watters 7-4-4 All Purpose Food. In the first year or two, fern leaf peonies may die back in the summer heat immediately after flowering; this is expected and is no cause for concern. Fern leaf peonies take several years to mature and flower, be patient. Fern leaves have sensitive roots, so use great care when moving or dividing this variety.
Tree peony like alkaline soil and don’t like to compete with other shrubs. Do not cut them back to ground level in the autumn. Tree peonies need iron and phosphate and do well with an annual feeding of sulfate and 7-4-4 All Purpose Food. They need regular feeding with of this 7-4-4 plant food every March, July, and October.
Better Together: Companion Plants for February
Calgary Carpet Juniper – Rich green mounds of juniper beauty only grow ankle-high for the perfect mountain ground cover. An ideal choice for low water, low care erosion control on natural banks where monsoon run-off is a problem. The perfect green nestled between boulders or soften the top edge of a masonry retaining wall. Ideally used to add color and style next to a barren rock lawn through the winter months. Junipers are always naturally welcome in Japanese gardens or pruned into creative bonsai forms.
Pinyon Pine – Thick, evergreen needles provide year-round beauty with summer shade to dry mountain landscapes but blend in equally well a modern or Mediterranean garden style.
Lily of the Valley – This gorgeous shrub loves growing in the summer shade of a Pinyon Pine. This bold winter evergreen delights with dramatic firey growth in spring, producing clusters of fragrant flowers. Exquisite wedding cake layers of white flowers hover on graceful, arching stems most of winter and spring. The easy-care rounded form stands out with shiny foliage all winter, opening to white bell-shaped blooms in spring. This knee-high shrub is utterly detestable to all deer and Javelina.