Peonies are the queens of the early summer garden. Their big, voluptuous flowers boldly brighten the garden in shades of pink, red, white and yellow while their glossy green leaves add structure to other plants around them. Best of all they are very deer resistant.
There are two forms of peony commonly found in our gardens. Tree peonies have a woody stem and can be treated like an ordinary deciduous shrub. The top of the plant is often grafted to a sturdier rootstock. Herbaceous or garden peonies, on the other hand, are a perennial that dies back to the ground each fall. They are often grouped by their flower shape: single, semidouble, double, Japanese and anemone.
Peonies need our cold winters to enhance bud development. Our cool springs allow the plants to grow tall and bloom before the heat hits in August. Peonies prefer well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 7, which is the normal range for soils in our area. Avoid heavy, poorly drained soils, as the roots will rot quickly. They grow best in full sun but can tolerate light shade, especially in the late afternoon.
In the spring, fertilize each plant with a half cup of a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as a 5-10-10 when the stems are 2 to 3 inches high. Apply a layer of mulch such as compost, bark or shredded pine needles in the spring to keep weeds down and conserve moisture. Peonies will need to be watered deeply once a week through the drier part of the summer and fall. In the fall after a heavy frost, cut garden peonies to the ground. Tree peonies are left alone.
Fall is the only time of year to safely transplant peonies, and then only if they are getting crowded or you want some new plants. Prepare the new spot ahead of time by digging in a generous amount of organic material and watering the space well. Continue to water the plants you plan to move. Wait for our first hard frost to knock the plants down.
Determine how wide the crown of the plant is and, using a sharp shovel, cut the plant in half. Then work your way around the outside of the root mass, gently prying up the two sections. Wash the soil off and look for the bright pink growing “eyes” in the crown of the plant. With a sharp knife cut the root mass into sections, each with three to five growing eyes and several stout, 4- to 6-inch shoots.
Replant the root section so the pink buds are no more than 1 1/2 to 2 inches below the surface of the soil. If they are planted any deeper, the plant will never bloom. Firm the soil around the plant and water them in well. Keep them moist until the really cold weather sets in. Be sure to mark the spot where you planted them so you don’t dig into it in the spring.
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