Garden Tips: Peonies need room to grow

For the Tri-City HeraldMay 16, 2013 

One of my first gardening memories is helping my grandmother cut peonies. When I close my eyes I can see those pretty rosy pink, blowsy flowers and smell their sweet fragrance.

Peonies are an old garden flower. Native to Asia, they have been cultivated as ornamentals for more than 2,500 years in China and since the eighth century in Japan. They came to North America in the 1850s via Europe.

In the “old” days, most American gardeners like my grandmother grew three types of peonies: white, pink and red, all with double flowers. Of course these were the most common varieties planted in home gardens. The diversity of peonies readily available to gardeners today is much greater, thanks to plant breeders.

Today’s peonies come in white, pink, red, burgundy, lavender, coral and even yellow. Gardeners can find different garden peony (Paeonia lactifora) varieties. The varieties are classified based on their flower types, which includes singles, semi-doubles, doubles, Japanese and anemone.

Peonies do best planted in a site with well-drained soil and where they’ll receive full sun. Plants should be located where they are protected from the wind and forceful irrigation sprinklers. The tubers usually are planted in the fall, but early spring planting also can be successful, as long as the tubers still are dormant. Before planting, work the soil up to a depth of 12 inches, mixing some organic matter in with the soil at the same time.

When ready to plant, dig a hole wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the tubers. Good quality tubers have three to five “eyes” or pink buds. In the fall, you should be able to find some tubers at local nurseries, but specialty nurseries like the Peony Farm (Ilovepeonies.com) in Sequim have a wider selection of varieties.

(I have also seen some gorgeous potted peonies available at local nurseries this spring. These are planted like other potted perennials, just make sure they are not planted too deep.)

After digging the hole, position the tuber so that the eyes are no more than 2 inches below the surface. Because the tuber may settle deeper in the soil after you water, you should gently firm the soil around the tuber as you plant it. If the eyes end up deeper than 2 inches deep, you may get a peony plant that doesn’t bloom! However, it can take two or three years before a new plant provides you with a display of flowers, so don’t get discouraged if yours doesn’t bloom the first spring after planting.

When planting, be sure your peony has enough room to grow. A space 3 to 4 feet wide will give it enough room to grow and allow good air circulation. Peonies do not need or do well with frequent dividing. Many do well in the same spot for 20 years or more!

After planting, peonies are a low-maintenance perennial. Keep the soil slightly moist with regular irrigation and fertilize once a year with slow-release garden fertilizer if needed. Possible pest problems are powdery mildew and thrips.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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