By Teresa Conway published
Peonies are real showstoppers, whether they're in full bloom in the garden or indoors in vases. With their voluptuous blooms, handsome foliage, fine fragrance and range of colours, they're a firm favourite with gardeners everywhere.
Don't think that you need to be an experienced gardener to grow peonies, however. Perfect for novice gardeners, they’re hardy, don’t mind a bit of neglect (always good to know!) and can last for years. You do need a bit of patience, as it can take up to three years to produce a really good show of flowers – but, once established, they’ll give long-lasting pleasure.
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When to plant peonies
Autumn and spring are prime planting time for peonies, but it’s never too early to start planning which variety you want for your garden. The plants will grow quickly and will burst into bloom in May and June. Many also have a beautiful fragrance but the scent can vary depending on the variety you choose.
Different types of peonies
This is the traditional ‘long stem’ plant flowering in May and June and dying back in winter. Traditional herbaceous peonies will often need stakes or supports to keep the large flowers from snapping stems.
These are more like shrubs than trees, with shorter, woody stems that don’t die back all the way in winter, and which produce an abundance of large flowers in April.
Also known as ‘Itohs’, these are a cross between the herbaceous and tree peonies. Developed in 1940s Japan, they flower in June and July, and can be easier to care for, as they need little or no staking.
How to grow peonies
Herbaceous border peonies thrive in a sunny spot in fertile soil with good drainage, and will appreciate being given extra water during dry seasons. They dislike acid conditions, will grow well on clay but hate waterlogged soil.
Many varieties, particularly ones that produce large double flowers (including the classic ‘Sarah Bernhardt’), have weak stems and need a little support; a wire frame is ideal for the job.
Peonies are happiest planted in groups of three or four in October to March. Mix in plenty of organic matter prior to planting, plus a handful of bone meal or other high phosphate fertiliser. They like moisture-retentive soil best of all. Repeat this feed every autumn, followed by mulch over the roots but never the crown. Keep watering them in dry spells so they don’t dry out.
They prefer open ground, but with care will perform well in pots. Choose a container at least 30cm across, and use a 50:50 John Innes No2 and a soilless compost.
How to care for peonies
October is the best time to divide, buy and plant all herbaceous peonies, including Itoh hybrids. Give Itohs a ‘standalone’ position in good sunlight because the large flowers, up to 20cm across, need space to shine. Make sure the top bud on the root (on all herbaceous peonies) is just below the soil because cold temperatures stimulate flower buds.
Itohs have woody stems. They don’t need staking. Don’t deadhead them – the furry carpels are an attractive feature in winter. Leave the stems intact during winter but once spring arrives, cut back to the lowest shooting buds and feed them with a slow-release, potash-rich fertiliser.
Problems to look out for
Avoid high nitrogen feeds, as these nourish the soft growth prone to peony wilt, a form of botrytis causing browning of leaves, stems and flower buds. Itoh hybrids show good resistance to this fungal problem, but it helps to encourage good air flow around plants, trim old foliage to 15cm in autumn, take it right down in spring, and remove any diseased stems promptly.
If you're experiencing a distinct lack of blooms, a common cause of this can be planting too deeply. The buds emerging from the crown should be just below the soil surface. Remember this when applying a layer of mulch and do not cover the crown of peonies. It could also be that they aren't getting enough light, remember they will flower best in full sun.
Beautiful peonies for your garden
Want to try growing peonies in your garden? Here are some of our favourites.
‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peony
This is one of the best all-round performers. The flowers come in a romantic rose-pink with slightly ruffled petals with a white edge. Flowers in June and July and likes sun or semi shade. Slightly taller than other peony varieties, this is an ideal choice for the back of perennial borders.
An impressive deep pinky-red bloom which is an excellent choice if you want to bring some scent to your garden. It grows up to 75cm and has strong straight stems.
‘Buckeye Belle’ peony
‘Duchesse de Nemours’ peony
Mixed peony collection
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Teresa was part of a team which launched Easy Gardens magazine two years ago and she continues to edit it today. She is also the Gardens Editor on Homes & Gardens, Country Homes & Interiors, Ideal Home and Style At Home, so she is lucky enough to see and write about gardening across all sizes, budgets and abilities. What she is most passionate about when it comes to gardening are the positive effects it has on our mental health to grow and care for plants. Keeping our patches alive with greenery is great for the environment too and help provide food and shelter for wildlife. Finally, she finds it to be such a wonderful opportunity to tap into her creative side and she loves the feeling that she is crafting a space which has a life of its own. Audrey Hepburn summed gardening up perfectly when she said - “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.
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