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Looking to grow the biggest, blousiest, most beautiful peony blooms? Here is your complete guide to growing and harvesting Peonies so that you can have the most gorgeous peonies year after year.
Christine has completed hours of horticulture courses with the New York Botanical Gardens for her Certificate of Gardening. She has also run her family’s farm store and garden center for 10 years and has home-gardened alongside her mother since she was a little girl. To say she has a passion for plants is an understatement!
A Complete Guide to Growing and Harvesting Peonies
PEONIES! The Queen of Spring. Few flowers can contend with the beauty of peonies – their large, billowy blooms, some with hundreds of petals, and colors ranging from whites to pinks to purples to burgundies to corals to yellows. As a cut flower, they can last over a week in the vase, many also carry a sweet and subtle scent. They’re the most requested flowers for weddings and special events but their season is fleeting – depending on the variety you can find them at the florist during May and June, but as a grower, bloom and harvest time is only a couple weeks.
In addition to being widely beloved and excelling in the vase, peonies are actually very easy to grow and look beautiful as a landscape plant, PLUS the deer don’t eat them! If you’ve been following my stories on Instagram you know I am quite the fan of these beauties so I thought I would round up all my peony tips into one comprehensive post for your present and future reference!
Join me below as I share all my tips for growing and harvesting peonies that will LAST year after year!
How to Grow Peonies
Everything you need to know about what peonies need in order to grow big and healthy including my recommendations for sunlight, soil, water, fertilizer, seasonal tasks!
Sunlight, Soil and Water Requirements for Peonies
Peonies need a TON of sun (think 8+ hours per day of uninterrupted, bright sunlight).
As for most plants, well-draining soil is best for peonies. If your soil is too dense (clay-like) and holds too much water, you run the risk of rotting the tubers. So good drainage is definitely key! You can amend most problematic soils by adding compost, it really is magical. It can loosen up dense clay and can tighten up loose sand-based soil! The compost is also beneficial because it provides key nutrients plants need in order to grow big and healthy.
Newly planted peonies will need water on hot, dry days until they become established (after being in the ground for a few months). But once established they just do their thing and extra watering is no longer necessary!
Definitely be careful with watering peonies, their bulbs are notorious for not loving wet soils and will rot easily if they stay too wet for too long. So again well draining soil and not over-watering is key for peonies!
Once established, peonies will flower abundantly for years – the ones we have at the farm are close to 20 years old and healthier than ever! Sometimes when they have big, blousy flowerheads the plant will need to be staked, especially double-flowered types because their blooms are so massive and heavy.
There are specific peony cages that can be super helpful in this; if you have a very established plant just make sure the cage is sturdy and can hold the weight of the plant. If you have a smaller bush you can use a tomato cage as support by turning it upside down and cutting it down to size with a pair of wire cutters.
Additionally you can use bamboo stakes and some roping for staking as you see we did in the photos above! The roping is just going around the outside of the bush to help keep the stems from splaying outwards.
A heavy spring rain can flatten your plants in a matter of minutes so it really is important to provide proper support for the stems!
Planting Peonies from Containers
Potted specimens can be purchased at your local garden center and planted in the spring. Add a generous dose of compost and phosphate-rich fertilizer before you lay your plant in the hole, bonemeal is a great option for this. Try to refrain from cutting flowering stems during the first, second and even third year if you can. It will give the plant the energy it needs to establish and grow profusely for years to come. I know it’s difficult to resist the urge but the payoff will be a fully mature plant that will reward you with years of many healthy blooms!
You can get instant gratification by planting a potted peony but planting bare-root tubers in the fall will give you even better results. This is also a more economical way to plant peonies because the rootstock is a fraction of the price of potted peony plants!
How to Plant Bare-Root Peonies
- Dig a hole 2-3 times as wide as the tuber.
- Amend your soil, make sure it is well-drained by adding compost.
- Add a phosphate-rich fertilizer like bonemeal and a handful of mycorrhizae fungi to promote root growth.
- As far as depth, tubers should lay just below the soil surface. Pay special attention to this, if tubers are planted too deeply they won’t flower properly!
- Space roots about three feet apart to give room for when the plant reaches its mature size.
- During early spring, before foliage starts to emerge, top-dress the soil with a light sprinkle of bonemeal and no more than 2in of compost. This will feed the plant during its growing season!
Most plants, especially during their active growing phase, like a little extra food. When peonies are first emerging from the ground during late winter/early spring I like to hit them with some all purpose fertilizer, like this 4-4-4 Dr. Earth organic fertilizer. Feeding your plants early is like giving them a little extra gas and helps give them the best start possible to the season.
When I see the foliage of the peonies is growing nice and big and healthy, I know buds will be coming soon. At this point I start to feed each plant some fertilizer with high phosphorus, geared specifically towards buds and blooms. This means when you are reading the three numbers on the packaging you’re looking for a high middle number.
Fertilizer 101 Lesson:
If you (vaguely!) remember the periodic table from high school chemistry, you know that N stands for Nitrogen, P for Phosphorus, and K for potassium. These nutrients are key to plant health and represent the three numbers seen on fertilizer bags. They are listed in order (N-P-K) so, a fertilizer that contains 5-10-10 means it has 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 10 percent potassium. A “complete” fertilizer contains some of all three.
These three nutrients are the major three that all plants require in order to grow strong and healthy (they need other nutrients as well but not in as high of quantities). Nitrogen boosts green leafy growth (that’s why you’ll see high N in lawn fertilizers!). Phosphorus helps the plant form a strong root system and therefore also strong buds, blooms and fruit. Potassium helps promote vigorous growth and hardiness, so a deficit may result in wimpy fruit or spindly plants that fall prey to pests and diseases.
Back to peonies…
At the first sight of shoots in the early spring I go in with a high phosphorus fertilizer. I will regularly (once every other week) feed them this Bud & Bloom Dr. Earth fertilizer (3-9-4) until buds look established and additionally hit them one time with Triple Super Phosphate. TSP give my plants that extra boost them need to set those big, blowsy blooms year after year!
Shop Peony Fertilizers Here
Looking for the bigest, lushest blooms ever? Then I highly recommend disbudding for peonies as their buds are developing. This means I remove any side/secondary buds to the main, big one. This will allow the plant to send more energy to that main stem/bloom and will produce a bigger, more impressive flower! I disbud about 2-3 weeks before bloom time so for me early to mid May.
In the photos above I am pointing out the buds I remove! I only leave the main, center bud!
Ants on Peonies
Ants are our friends when it comes to peonies!
Please leave the ants on your peonies and let them do their work! They are GOOD, and some say even ESSENTIAL, for the health of the blooms.
They help peony buds open by chewing away the sugar on the green casing which allows it to open! Ants and peonies actually have a symbiotic relationship – the ants eat the sweet and sticky nectar on the bud for food and the peonies rely on the ants to release the bud casing for a bigger bloom.
If you’ve watched before you’ve noticed that the ants leave once the flower is open, but if any linger I just gently shake them away and thank them for their work!
Pests & Fungus on Peonies
First things first, in case I haven’t mentioned yet, peonies are deer resistant!! This is one of the main reasons I have so many planted at our home, our property is like a deer thruway! And really in all my years growing them no small animals or insects bother them either!
Fungus on the other hand…
Botrytis Blight and Powdery Mildew are two of the most common fungi found to affect peonies. Both have a signature gray mold look, the blight however produces brown/black spots and can totally kill buds. It’s imperative to understand first why these fungi are present and second to take measures to one, stop the spread and two, prevent it from happening again.
The main thing to remember about fungi is that they become present in more damp and cool conditions. Sometimes we have no control over this due to climate and the weather season but other times we can actively help our plants be the healthiest and strongest they possibly can so when a fungus or disease shows up they don’t want to bother with our strong plant! (Weaker plants are always an easier target and pests/disease know that!).
Tips for keeping healthy plants and preventing disease/pest infestations (this goes for everything!):
- Watering Tips 101: Water evenly and only when necessary, don’t let your plants stress from either over or under-watering. When watering try to just get the water on the soil at the base of the plant, wet leaves attract fungus! Also, water in the morning to allow the plant to drink during the day. Watering at night can also invite fungus because the moisture lingers while temps are cool and the sun is away. Usually, there is no need to water established shrubs and perennials (when they’ve been in the ground over a few months)!
- Trim away dead/dying foliage and stems regularly (definitely don’t let it rot on the soil surface near pants!).
- Feed your plants appropriate fertilizer (follow the instructions on the label).
- Make sure they are getting enough sun (8+hours for peonies!).
- Keep weeds at bay – we use mulch as a control and good old hand-weeding (this tool helps tremendously though!).
- Check your plant daily and address any pests/fungus as early as possible with organic methods.
- Use beneficial insects when possible both as a preventative and combatant!
Back the Botrytis Blight and Powdery Mildew…
For both of these my recommendation is first to physically trim out any infected plant material. Use clean pruners and disinfect (rub with an alcohol wipe) between plants and definitely give them a good sterilization when the job is completed. DO NOT compost the removed plant material, it can be transferred to other plants in your yard or into the soil which would be a big problem! Dispose of the infected material safely and away from other plants.
Next you’ll want to spray with Neem oil. Neem oil is my preferred fungicide and I always have it on hand because it actually combats both fungi and most insects, plus it’s completely safe and organic! Another good option is any fungicide containing potassium bicarbonate, or try making your own with this simple recipe:
Just mix these ingredients together and using a garden sprayer apply to the infected plants!
For much more information and amazing resources on peony disease check out these sites:
Common Peony Problems by The Missouri Botanical Gardens
Controlling or Eliminating Powdery Mildew by Growing a Greener World
If you are letting some flowers stay on the plant, don’t forget to deadhead. This idea with this is that you want to tell your plant to send energy back to the roots. Tubers start their process of energy storage right after they bloom, if you do not remove the spent flower stem you are telling the plant to send energy to make seeds. This is kind of pointless because it would take YEARS for you to grow a peony from seed and because they are cultivars, you would not get that same peony, you would get stock ones which are just not as cool!
What to Do With Peonies in the Fall
Cutting Back Peonies
Much like general bulb plant care, you can remove all the old stems on herbaceous peonies in late fall after the first frost turns the foliage yellow. This means the plant has been successful in sending all its energy to the roots where it will overwinter and use next spring to grow into a hearty and healthy plant. I would discard all the cut foliage to prevent gray mold, a fungus that affects peonies and can survive the winter months in composted old stems.
Fall is also the best time to dig and transplant if you wish to move the location of your plant. Carefully dig around and then clear under the roots, take care not to damage the fleshy tubers. Lever the tuber clump out of the ground with a wide spade or pitchfork, disturbing the root mass as little as possible. Transplant it in the new location, which should be in full sun with well-draining, rich soil. Plant just beneath the soil level, and water it well.
Now is the time to divide and multiply your plants if desired! Large, well-established peonies can be divided in the fall to renew growth or to make new plants (although tubers can actually grow for 40-50 years successfully and undisturbed!). To divide a plant, cut back the foliage, and then carefully dig up the root system and shake or dust the dirt off of the tuber clump. Use a sharp knife cleaned with rubbing alcohol and cut the clump into sections, each holding three to five eyes and several roots. I will update this post in the fall when we plant our peonies and provide photos of what I mean, but to give you a visual, eyes are the buds on top of the crown that grow into new stems. Replant each piece in its new garden location, placing the buds 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Water the new tubers thoroughly.
Providing Winter Protection for Peonies
If you’re growing peonies in a colder hardiness zone you’ll need to protect them from the winter cold, especially in zones 3-5. In late fall, give them a mulch layer 2 to 3 inches thick, using an organic material such as shredded bark or straw. This will help them stay nice and cozy until they emerge in the spring!
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How and When to Cut Peonies
Picking peonies definitely requires some prep and basic knowledge for the best results. Here are my recommendations!
How to tell when peonies are ready to be cut
Have your bucket of room temperature, CLEAN water ready with flower food already added so you can put the stems directly in them. When I am using my stems right away I give them an immediate drink, if you need to pick but are not using them right away scroll down for my tips on delaying them from opening and instead preserving them in the fridge! I also did a tutorial on this now saved to my Instagram highlights!
You can pick your peonies as open as you like but I prefer to cut them when they are in a specific bud phase called “soft marshmallow.” What does this mean? Basically, if you gently squeeze the bud and it feels like a squishy marshmallow, it’s ready to be picked! If it feels harder than a marshmallow, let it ripen a little more but keep your eye on it. Peony buds are known for going from hard to soft marshmallow in a matter of hours!
I pick them at this stage because it gives me the longest vaselife and they actually open. If you pick buds too soon and the petals haven’t finished fully developing you’ll get a wonky looking half-bloom if anything at all. If you pick the flowers too blown out and open it’s no big deal, they are still gorgeous, you just won’t get as long of a time out of them in the vase.
Cleaning Peony Stems
Remove ALL foliage and minor buds right then and there immediately after cutting from the plant. I know it seems counterintuitive to remove potential flowers but these minor/side buds are only sucking life away from your main bloom and will cut its vaselife down significantly if left on the stem. They also won’t open in water because they are not developed enough.
It is imperative to remove all foliage not only because if it sits in water it will rot (this is true for all cut flowers, by the way!), but also because again these leaves are sucking energy from the main bloom and will cut down its vaselife. I cut all foliage and unnecessary buds of my blooms immediately – right after I cut them from the plant, before I put them in the water bucket.
Extra Peony Harvesting Tips
As far as stem length, I suggest cutting as long as possible! I tend to cut them at about 24″ long so that I have wiggle room for whatever height I want them to be in their final vessel. Another trick I’ve learned it to give the stems a second cut while under the water. So the initial cut is when they are taken off the plant but give a second cut, under the water, as you put them in your bucket. You should be using CLEAN and sharp snips (I use THESE by Felco or THESE by Fiskars) to get the best cuts, just spray or dip the blades in rubbing alcohol prior to use. Cutting at a 45-degree angle is best for water absorption.
That said, when harvesting, be sure to leave at least 2 sets of leaves on stems that remain on the plant so that it can continue to grow and store food over the summer.
It’s best to cut peonies in the early morning or late in the afternoon/evening. Cutting them in the heat of the day will only stress them out, make them open faster and shorten their vase life. This is true for cutting pretty much all flowers – do it either in the cool morning or evening!
How to Make Your Peonies Last Longer in the Vase
Peonies can last 2-3 weeks if you want them to and have the proper storage. Just one of the many reasons I love them!
Once cut, different peonies will open at different rates. For example, Coral Charm, Festiva Maxima and Karl Rosenfeld are quick, while Sarah Bernhardt (my FAVE!) is slower. Regardless, cooler temperatures will always extend their vaselife. If you want to really slow down the opening, keep your cut blooms in the fridge in a vase of water, you can just take them out when you’re ready to display or use them.
If you do not have the space for a vase of peonies in your fridge don’t worry! You can store them by bunching the stems together, drying them off with a clean towel and slipping them into a plastic bag with a few paper towels wrapped around the base of the stems. The paper towels will both absorb excess moisture and keep the stems just moist enough to live. Take care to make sure there is no moisture on the blooms or leaves though!
Preserving Your Peonies in the Fridge
Additionally, you can wrap the entire bouquet (bare stem) in either a few sheets of tissue paper or newspaper and preserve them in the fridge. Lay your bunch flat and check them every day for signs of mold; change out the paper towel if you see mold and trim away any brown (rot) on the stems.
Make sure to keep the blooms away from moisture and also fruits and vegetables (in or outside the fridge). These naturally give off ethylene gas which will speed up the aging of your blooms. You can keep peonies out of water in a refrigerator for up to two weeks! Once you’re ready to use them, just follow the steps below to hydrate them.
I also did a quick tutorial on this method now saved to my Instagram highlights!
If you do not have a fridge available, the next best thing is to keep them in the coldest and dimmest room possible. That could be a closet, bathroom, basement or better yet, a garage. Just make sure it’s not SO cold that they freeze – around 41 degrees is ideal!
The flowers will look limp upon removal from the fridge but give the stems a fresh cut and put them immediately in a vase of warm water with flower preservative. They will perk up and open beautifully within the next 24 hours. They should last about a week in fresh water!
For more of my tips and tricks on how to keep ALL blooms lasting longer in the home, stay tuned for my free downloadable guide!
PHEW! Thank you so much for reading my post and checking out my peony tips! I am a big flower lover and I would LOVE to hear from you and see photos of your peonies and gardens! Leave me a comment below 🙂
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