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Lawn & Garden

Growing peonies

5/9/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Dayle Davis

Peony blossoms are large and most are fragrant, making them a good choice for cutting to enjoy indoors as well.
Photo courtesy of MetroCreative Connection
GREATER AKRON — Peonies are among my very favorite spring blooming perennials. They are faithful, extremely long-lived and always exceed expectations of a fabulous spring showing. The foliage stands upright and green all summer. It substitutes nicely for a shrub to provide a background for annuals or other perennials. The blossoms are huge, most varieties are fragrant and all do a fabulous job in a pretty vase on the breakfast table. They flower in every color except blue.

There are two types of peonies commonly grown — Paeonia hybrids, or garden peony with foliage that dies back to the ground in fall (the subject of this article), and Paeonia suffruticosa, or tree peony, which is a woody shrub-like peony that loses just its leaves in winter.

For Paeonia hybrids, these plants are actually classified by flower form: singles, semi-doubles, anemones and doubles. All peonies have five or more large outer petals called guard petals and a center of stamens. Single forms have centers of pollen-bearing stamens. Centers of semi-double forms consist of broad petals intermingled with pollen-bearing stamens. Double types have dense centers of only broad petal, known as transformed stamens. The anemone form may have more than one row of guard petals encircling a center of thin, petal-like structures. Japanese types are similar to anemones, but their center stamens do not produce pollen. Each peony plant flowers for about a week in late spring to early summer. If you plant a variety of early, mid- and late season bloomers, you can have flowering peonies in your garden for up to six weeks. But when in bloom, the flowers are heavy and may be knocked down, so a bit of support with staking is helpful.

After blooming, it is not necessary to cut back the foliage, but it may be cut back to a small shrub size if desired. These old-fashioned favorites can always use a bit of help to maintain their reputation, especially when peonies are newly planted in a fresh new garden. Here is a bit of information about helping peonies grow their best in your garden:

Peonies love sunny locations and well-drained soils that are rich in organic matter, but they will tolerate a wide range of soil types. They can grow from 2 to 4 feet in height. Early fall is the best time to plant, transplant and divide peonies, but this also may take place in spring as soon as the soil is workable.

To plant, prepare an area about 3 feet in diameter for each peony plant. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots, and work aged organic matter into the bottom of the hole. Situate the peony in the prepared hole so the small, red-colored buds, commonly known as eyes, are 1 to no more than 2 inches below the soil’s surface. Note that the location of the eye in the soil is very important. Backfill and water well.

Once planted, a common problem with peonies is failure to bloom. This can be from a variety of reasons, such as planting too deeply, immature plants, excess nitrogen, inadequate sunlight, overcrowding, phosphorus and/or potassium deficiency, insect or disease problems, competition from roots of nearby plants or late freezes.

Peonies are considered century plants and may be left undisturbed for many years. In fact, the peonies in my garden are the same ones that grew in a garden where my 82-year-old mother played when she was a little girl.

If your peony starts to produce fewer flowers, it is probably overcrowded and needs dividing. Carefully lift the clump and wash away the soil to expose the eyes. Use a clean, sharp tool to divide the clump into sections, each with three to five eyes and good roots. Replant immediately.

Peonies have few pests or problems. The most frequently occurring pests are botrytis blight and leaf blotch, which are fungal diseases. Botrytis seems to thrive during wet springs, affecting leaves, stems and flowers. Spots appear on leaves, stems soften and decay, and flowers either rot or buds blacken and fail to open. Prompt removal of infected material and a thorough fall cleanup are essential for control. In spring when shoots emerge, use a fungicide labeled for botrytis according to package instructions. Leaf blotch prefers warm, moist weather. Glossy, dark purple spots form on the upper surfaces of leaves. Again, control by removing infected leaves and practice good fall cleanup. At the first signs of infection, apply a properly labeled fungicide. Avoid overhead irrigation.

Other fungal diseases include Phytophthora blight and Verticillium wilt. These are soil-borne fungi with no cure other than destroying infected plants. Never replant new peonies in diseased soil.

The only insect pests that seem to bother peonies are scales. Scales are seen on stalks and leaf bases in late summer and overwinter on the below ground portion of stalks. For control, remove plant material in fall, then apply a properly labeled insecticide in late May and mid-June the following year. The presence of ants on peony blossoms is neither beneficial nor harmful to the plant. Ants do not harm the blossoms, they simply feed on the sweet, sticky nectar secreted by the peony buds and can be gently shaken off before bringing the blooms indoors.

For more information, call The Ohio State University Summit County Hotline Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon at 330-928-4769, ext. 3, and request FactSheet HYG-1241-94, “Growing Peonies.”


Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is a master gardener emeritus under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.

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