When it comes to flamboyant flowers, few plants can beat the hardy, deciduous peony – the giant blooms can often be the size of dinner plates.
There are three types of peony: herbaceous types, which die back to ground level every winter; tree peonies, which are taller and more woody and keep their frame throughout winter (they’re small shrubs and not trees); and intersectional hybrids, which are a cross between tree and herbaceous types (these are not so readily available).
How to grow peonies
All peonies require a moist but well-drained soil in full sun. Provide support for varieties with large flowers. Herbaceous peonies can be propagated by division in autumn, while tree peonies are better propagated by layering.
More on growing peonies:
Where to grow peonies
Plant peonies in a rich but well-drained soil in a position of full sun. Avoid planting these often expensive plants in a waterlogged soil. The majority of herbaceous peonies prefer a neutral or slightly alkaline soil.
Tree peonies need a sheltered position and are more tolerant of acid soils.
How to plant peonies
Bare-root peony plants should be planted as soon as they arrive. Peonies are best planted in autumn or spring. Ensure you don’t plant them too deeply, as this will yield poor results. Mix in plenty of well-rotted organic matter before planting. Apply a balanced fertiliser in spring.
Avoid overwatering newly planted peonies as this is a common cause of plant failure.
As peony flowers are so heavy, you will need to use a plant support.
In this video guide, Monty Don show’s how to plant a herbaceous peony, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and taller tree peonies. He explains how planting depth is crucial with peonies – and how to get it right.
How to care for peonies
Herbaceous peonies should be cut back hard in autumn to ground level. Tree peonies do not need pruning. All you need to do is remove the faded seed heads in autumn. Don’t be tempted to pick off the faded foliage in autumn – let it fall off naturally. Avoid pruning tree peonies hard back as they are often grafted onto herbaceous peonies.
When weeding borders try to avoid stepping on the newly forming buds of the herbaceous types.
Sometimes peonies form suckers around the base of the plant. Here, David Hurrion explains what to do with them:
How to propagate peonies
Herbaceous peonies can be propagated by division in autumn. Cut the faded foliage back and lift the plant with a garden fork. Remove as much of the garden soil as possible and with a knife cut off sections of the crown. Each section should have at least three buds and plenty of root. Replant straight away in the garden.
Don’t try to divide tree peonies. Instead, you may be able to try layering a pliable stem, or sowing seed.
Growing peonies: problem solving
Peony buds are very appealing to ants. It’s not unusual to see the buds crawling with ants. Don’t worry, they won’t damage the plant.
The most common problem is peony wilt. This is a botrytis that causes the stems to rot. It’s best to avoid planting peonies too closely together. Remove any leaves with dark spots on them as this will help to reduce the spread of the fungus. When cutting back herbaceous types in autumn, clear up all the foliage to avoid reinfection in spring.
In this video clip from Gardeners’ World, Carol Klein offers a practical guide to spotting and treating peony wilt, with tips on cleaning secateurs to avoid reinfection:
Advice for buying peonies
- Peonies are slow to establish, so buy the biggest peony you can afford, for the best display as soon as possible
- While plenty of peonies are available from garden centres, you may find more choice at a specialist nursery
- Check your peony for signs of damage and pests before you buy/as soon as you unpack it
Where to buy peonies online
Great peonies to grow
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Angel Cheeks’ – herbaceous type with candy floss pink double flowers in May and June. Height of 70cm
- Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’ – a very popular herbaceous peony. Bright pink outer petals and lemon petaloids. Flowers in May and June. Height 90cm
- Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ – large, double, pale-pink flowers in May. This herbaceous type is perfumed and ideal for cutting. Reaches 90cm
- Paeonia ‘Mrs William Kelway’ –a popular tree peony with semi-double pure white flowers in May or June. Reaches 120cm when mature
- Paeonia ‘Souvenir de Maxine Cornu’ – a tree peony with double yellow and orange blooms in May or June. Flowers hang downwards. Really over the top – a showstopper. Reaches a height of 120cm