Grow Better Peonies

by Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, Watters Garden Center

Peony derives its name from a Greek myth. Paeon, a student under Aesculapius, the god of medicine, was well aware of the medicinal qualities of peony plants.

He used them to heal a wound suffered by the god Pluto. The upstaged Aesculapius was displeased and threatened retribution. Pluto saved Paeon’s life by turning him into a peony plant.

These fragrant flowers prefer full sun. An exception to this rule applies to gardens below the 4,500-foot elevation where peonies benefit from shade through midday.

Planting Peonies

Dig a shallow, wide hole and set your peony plant. Drainage is key. Through early spring, you will see the rebirth of the crown poking through the soil. In April, each plant will grow actively, with flower buds soon to follow. May and June, their beauty fills the gardens.

Landscaping

Peonies often are planted individually. Because of their sizable maturity, perennial beds should be planted toward the back of the garden when sharing perennial beds with others.

Peonies are often planted in groups, side by side, to form a row — think formal English gardens.

Peony Care

Support peony plants with stakes or hoops, just like tomatoes. The large blooms are heavy, especially after a monsoon rain. Trimming back and disposing of the foliage in autumn prevents disease.

If you see one specimen stunted while the peony plants around it usually blooming, remove and destroy that plant before it infects others.

Mulch heavily through winter. Apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded cedar bark after the foliage has died in autumn.

Finer Points

Often, when we see pictures of huge, beautiful flowers in books, we assume they come from the tropics. Mother Nature made an exception with mountain peonies. These cold-hardy perennials grow in temperatures as low as -20 degrees. They even grow in the most frigid north-facing gardens of Arizona.

Plant peonies near entrances and patios where their fragrance is enjoyed readily. Peony plants with double flowers are the most fragrant.

To extend the blooming season, stagger your varieties. Purposely plant early blooming varieties, others late, with others that bloom between.

Peony plants are exceedingly long-lived. Peonies are unlike other perennials in that they rarely need to be divided — they dislike being disturbed. If you do divide them to increase your stock, autumn is the best season to do so.