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GROWING HERBACEOUS PEONIES


There are thousands of varieties of peonies however they come in three different forms. Herbaceous peonies, the subject of this article, which generally grow up to about 1m / 3ft tall and wide. The second is the tree peony which tends to be taller and definitely wider. There is a less well-known, third type called "intersectional" or "itoh" peonies which are a half way house between the two types. The majority of peonies cultivated by amateur gardeners are the herbaceous "paeonia lactiflora".

Use the checklist below to decide if herbaceous Peonies are suited to your needs and garden conditions

Peony Immaculee Copyright Notice
Paeonia Immaculee

WHEN DO PEONIES PRODUCE FLOWERS?


There is no formal classification which defines when herbaceous peonies begin to produce flowers but the terms shown below are in general use. The specific dates are the average for the UK, in cooler areas it will be a week or two later and in warmer areas a week or two earlier. The length of time over which flowers are produced is dependent on the variety.

Peony Bowl of Love Copyright Notice
Paeonia Bowl of Love

BEST CONDITIONS TO GROW PEONIES


Peonies do best in full sun but they can grow well if the position is part-shaded. They will grow well in both normal and clay soils, they are probably best avoided if your ground is lighter / sandier than normal. 

They dislike water-logged conditions because it rots the roots and the crown of the plant. In heavy clay they will appreciate a layer of horticultural grit below the roots at planting time to help with drainage.

The flowers of peonies are large by any standards and the stems sometimesn have difficulty in supporting them. For this reason they are best grown in a position which is not subject to strong winds. They respond well to being staked but even so, strong winds can damage them.

Top value Peony plants

DIFFERENT VARIETIES OF PEONIES


Choosing a variety of peony can make a huge difference to the length of flowering and your enjoyment of this plant. In the past many website articles and books failed to take into account many varieties. As a general rule, though not always, the lactiflora hybrids perform very well in the UK climate.

All herbaceous peonies are fully hardy throughout the UK so the choice of variety comes down to the flowers and how long they last. We list below some of those we recommend, however, it all comes down to personal preferences in the end.

If you plan to buy your peony online then it is important to buy good quality ones. There are many suppliers of lower quality peonies at cheap prices but the plants inevitably take a couple of years longer to establish and never produce the same number of quality flowers. With peonies, quality at the outset, really does count.

CORAL SUNSET


As far as peonies are concerned, Coral Sunset is a recent introduction dating back to only 1981. It stands out head and shoulders from much of the competition on two counts. First the flowers are a stunning shade of coral, changing slightly as they age. Second, it rarely needs staking making it an ideal, low maintenance garden plant. It has the following characteristics:

Peony Coral Sunset
Peony Coral Sunset

Click here to buy a top quality Peony Coral Sunset online with a reliable one year guarantee from Crocus, your GardenFocused recommended supplier.

DUCHESSE DE NEMOURS


This variety dates back over 150 years and is still one of the most popular of all the peonies for cut flowers. It has the following characteristics:

Peony Duchesse de Nemours
Peony Duchesse de Nemours

Click here to buy a top quality Peony Duchesse de Nemours online with a reliable one year guarantee from Crocus, your GardenFocused recommended supplier.

BOWL OF BEAUTY


This variety dates back to 1949 and was bred in Holland. it produces stunning fuchsia-pink flowers with a white centre giving the impression of a full double. It has the following characteristics:

Peony Bowl of Beauty
Peony Bowl of Beauty

Click here to buy a top quality Peony Bowl of Beauty online with a reliable one year guarantee from Crocus, your GardenFocused recommended supplier.

LAURA DESSERT


Dating back to 1913 this our favourite peony for the garden. The stems are strong and the flowers are well supported in normal growing conditions. It will only require staking in windy conditions. The lemon and white flowers are not the biggest but for sheer style and beauty they are the best. It has the following characteristics:

Peony Laura Dessert
Peony Laura Dessert

Click here to buy a top quality Laura Dessert online with a reliable one year guarantee from Crocus, your GardenFocused recommended supplier.

WHITE WINGS


We include this variety because it does better than most other peonies in a shaded position. The flowers are single, pure white with a centre that turns golden yellow as it opens. Another very similar variety is Wrinkled White but that needs full sun. It has the following characteristics:

Click here to buy a top quality White Wings online from Kelways, your GardenFocused recommended supplier for this variety.

PAEONIA CAMBESSEDESII


This is one of our favourite peonies but it does need some warmth to produce the best flowers. We have seen them growing successfully in RHS Wisley. It has the following characteristics:

Close up of Paeonia Cambessedesii
Copyright Notice
Paeonia Cambessedesii

Click here to buy a top quality Paeonia Cambessedesii online from Ashwood Nurseries, your GardenFocused recommended supplier for this variety.

PAEONIA ROCKII


Not one of the commonest of peonies but certainly the flowers must rate as one of the most beautiful. This is a tree peony which grows to 2m / 6ft high and 1m / 3ft wide. It does tend to maintain a rather lax and unruly shape but the beauty of the flowers make up for this.

It flowers in late spring and is fully hardy. One to consider if you want a peony that none of your neighbours will have!

Paeonia rockii flower Copyright Notice
Peony rockii

WHERE AND WHEN TO BUY PEONIES


Peonies are sold in two forms, containerised plants and field grown roots. As far as price goes, field grown roots are the cheaper, and best, option.

FIELD GROWN PEONY ROOTS


This is the traditional way to buy peonies. The roots are harvested (often by machine) in autumn before any harsh frosts occur. They are then cleaned of excess earth and trimmed up ready for packing and sale. See below a video showing how one of the major producers harvest peony roots.

 

Sounds simple and straightforward doesn't it! Well, it's not and there is a world of difference between a well cultivated and harvested peony root compared to one grown to just average or low standards.

We summarise below how the best peony roots are grown, you will then see that shortcuts can be made to save money. Those shortcuts result in poor quality roots which will take longer to establish, produce inferior flowers and can be prone to disease. The more shortcuts taken, the lower will be the quality of the roots

YEAR 1
Carefully grown two year old peony roots are planted in autumn in open ground. They are cultivated in the normal way for two years.

YEAR 3
In autumn the peony roots are dug up and divided into two. One of the divisions is replanted in open ground with the intention of letting it grow for two years to continue the growth cycle. The other division is also replanted but in a separate field and left to grow for one year in readiness for sale.

YEAR 4
The roots intended for sale are dug up and prepared for sale as described above. Note that commercially grown peony roots are grown in soil which is typically much more sandy than you would expect. This makes the harvest process easier, the roots cleaner and less prone to fungal diseases.

Field grown peony roots are normally offered for sale in October and November and are normally cheaper compared to containerised peony plants.

CONTAINERISED PEONY ROOTS


Ideally these are grown in a similar way as described above but when the roots are harvested for sale they are put in pots with compost to hold them in place. The advantage of this is that the plants can be sold at any time. In general the plants are as good quality as field grown roots (if looked after corrected when in their containers) however they are almost always more expensive.



WHERE TO BUY PEONY ROOTS


If you have read the above section you will understand that not every peony root is equal to others. Almost by definition cheaper peony roots, especially those at very cheap prices, will be of significantly lower quality compared to well grown ones.

Your only guarantee of quality is to buy from a reputable source. The suppliers we recommend in the varieties section above are known to supply peony roots in good condition.

HOW AND WHEN TO PLANT A PEONY


Peonies can live up to 80 years so it's important to plant them correctly. Follow the steps below:

CARING FOR PEONIES


Peonies require very little care once established and are one of the most maintenance free long tem plants. In late autumn when the foliage and stems are dying down (but not before) remove all fallen leaves and dying stems - burn them is the best solution. If there are trees or other shrubs nearby which shed leaves in large numbers, remove them from the surface on and around the peony.

In early spring scatter a couple of good handfuls of fish, blood and bone around the plants and very gently work it into the soil surface. In most situations peonies do not require much feeding but on lighter soils it is worthwhile.

If your soil is light and sandy it will be worth applying an annual mulch around the plants. Be careful though to keep the mulch away from the crown of the plant. Apply the mulch in a band of about 45cm / 28in wide about 60cm / 2ft away from the centre of the plant. If you apply mulch over the crown area it can cause it to rot.

HOW TO SUPPORT PEONIES


Most peonies produce larger than average flowers and in many cases the stems are not strong enough to support them in windy or heavy rain conditions. It only takes one day of high rainfall or a strong winds to destroy the look of the plants. The solution is to provide a framework which supports them. 

If the frame is put in place when the plants are 10cm / 4in or so tall they will naturally grow through the framework (if the spacing size is correct) and quickly it will be completely hidden. That's a big "IF" though because it is so easy to forget to put the frame in place at the correct time.

If the frame is put in place too late (and peonies grow very quickly from early spring onwards) it is a nightmare to try and thread the stem through the support without damaging them and the buds. There are several solutions to this problem and we outline a few below.

PERMANENT PEONY SUPPORTS
These are the best looking and by far the most convenient method of supporting your plants. Good quality ones will last 15 years or more and also look great when the plants have died down. You put them in place for the first time and leave them there for life. They are expensive, without a doubt, but they do the job perfectly, look great in winter and there will never be a need to remember to put supports in place again.

The ones suitable specifically for peonies are trumpet supports, grow-through-rings and link stakes.

CHEAP PEONY SUPPORTS
Typically these come in a green plastic finish with thinner metal inners, they rarely come with a guarantee. These need to be taken in over winter if you want them to last up to three years. If left out over winter, not only will they quickly become unusable but also they are not particularly attractive.

Most will almost certainly last a year but after that it's variable. One such support is sold by Megatrade. It certainly is cheap but you definitely only get what you pay for.

HOME MADE SUPPORTS
For those on a real budget, you can make your own peony plant supports. They rarely look attractive but while the plant is in full leaf they will be hidden if you have made them to the correct size. We've never done but click here for the link to a page where Monty Don shows you how to make your own plant support.

HOW AND WHEN TO PRUNE PEONIES


Herbaceous peonies grow to roughly 1m / 3foot high and wide so allow enough space when you plant them. Pruning them to shape or to restrict their size is not recommended.

In autumn, when the foliage and stems start to die down, remove them to avoid fungal infections to the crown of the plant.

Peonies make excellent cut flowers. It's best to cut them before they are fully open, they will open up fully in the vase. Immediately after you cut them put them in water.

PESTS AN DISEASES OF PEONIES


Peonies are almost never affected by pests, slugs, snails and birds seem to avoid them. They can be home to ants which are attracted to a sweet goo they exude but the ants rarely do any significant damage. The main disease to affect peonies is wilt which is described below.

PEONY WILT


This is a fungal infection which first shows signs in late spring to early summer. At first the leaves will have random brown patches on them. Later on the leaves on entire stems wilt, curl and become brown. Flowers may also become affected and looking malformed. Usually is does not affect the whole plant, a single or a few stems are commonly affected.

In the UK there is no chemical cure. The best course of action is to prune out infected stems being careful to sterile the secateurs (with a wipe of methylated spirits or similar disinfectant) in between each cut. This will avoid spreading the fungus.

Clear up any dead leaves or other decaying matter around the plant. Burn everything, do not put infected leaves or stem on the compost heap.

The condition thrives in damp areas and those with poor air circulation. To help with this prune away any weak growing stems from the centre of the plant to allow good air circulation. If this is done the plant may well recover. In the long term, good hygiene by removing all dead and decaying matter at the base of the plant should prevent any further recurrence.

GROWING PEONIES IN CONTAINERS


Some articles suggest that smaller varieties of peony can be grown in containers but we don't recommend this. There are plenty of other shrubs and perennials which adapt to container growing far better.

PEONY SUMMARY


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Peonies.
 
HARDY 5 star hardiness rating(to -20°C)
   
CLAY SOIL Yes but not water-logged
SANDY SOIL  Yes if improved
   
DRY SOIL No
   
SHADE  No, partial, full sun (but see 'White Wings')
   
EVERGREEN  No
   
EASY CARE 4 easy care rating
SMALL GARDENS  Yes
   
POT / CONTAINER No
   
FLOWERING  5 star flowering rating
   
FLOWER TIME Late May to late June depending on the variety

Other "easy-care" shrubs in this series include Choisya, Hebes, Skimmia, Lilacs, Potentilla and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus).