“I live in south Georgia and I would love to plant peonies, but I was told by a local nursery that they can’t survive here because we don’t have cold enough winters for them to reset, is this true?” Question from Ladonna of Naylor, Georgia
Answer: It is partially true. The most popular peonies in the US are common garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). The large, bushy plants produce loads of big, late-spring flowers and are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7 (sometimes 3-8b), so you are on the edge of their hardiness. They do need winter cold for several months to produce blooms and survive in the long term, but Naylor, Georgia (USDA Hardiness Zones 8b) is cold enough to sustain some peonies. If you want to be on the safe side, there are other peonies that can survive with even less winter cold. This includes some tree peonies (Paeonia species and hybrids, varying zones, sometimes down to zone 9), and Intersectional (ITOH Hybrids (Zones 4-9), which are hybrids between common and tree peonies.
Peonies for Southern Gardeners
Here are seven good herbaceous peony varieties for southern gardens.
‘America’ (Zones 4-8b)- a single, red herbaceous peony that is award-winning and has HUGE blooms
‘Coral Charm‘ (Zones 3-8b) – a semi-double coral-pink award-winner (one of my favorites!)
‘Felix Crousse‘ (Zones 3-8b) – an herbaceous heirloom (1881) with fragrant double-red blooms
“My peonies are more luxurious than ever this year. However, after the 1st rain, they tend to fall over. I have each bush encased in an upside-down tomato cage, but they still tend to droop, as the flowers are so heavy. Any suggestions to make this stop from happening every year and any ideas on how to make the glorious blossoms last longer? Many thanks!!” Question from Diane of Newark, Ohio
Answer: Sadly, this is a common problem with old-fashioned, double-flowered peonies. Their weighty blooms cause the weak stems to bend, so they droop. After a rain, the flowers hold water like petaled bowls, which causes them to drop to the ground. Tomato cages can certainly work, but some garden supply companies make even stronger perennial cages that do the job better. For example, Titan Peony Supports get high ratings from gardeners. Another option is to bolster each flower stem with its own stake before blooming begins. This method takes more time but results in a prettier-looking peony.
Finally, if your peony is planted in partial sun, it may be worth the effort to dig its massive root ball in fall and move it to a sunnier spot. More sun also encourages stem strength. Just be sure not to plant peonies too deeply (more than 3-inches below the surface) as this can inhibit flowering.
As far as making the blossoms last longer, there is no method known other than picking the blossoms for indoor arrangements and giving the cut flowers fresh water and cut-flower food until they fade.
“When is the best time to move Peony plants?” Question from Carin of Fall Creek, Wisconsin
Answer: Because peonies are extraordinarily hardy, I prefer moving them in the fall, but you can also moving them after they bloom in the spring. But, there are six things that you should know before moving peonies.
Six Things to Know Before Moving Peonies
Peonies have very large taproots, so you need to dig deep to capture them all.
I recommend digging around the clump to maintain as much soil around the roots as possible. The less you disturb the clump, the better.
Peony buds like to rest just an inch or two below the soil surface. If you cover them with too much soil, they may not bloom.
Peonies should be fed with an all-purpose 10-10-10 granular fertilizer once a year. Surprisingly, overfertilizing peonies can reduce flowering.
Use a long, sharp shade to dig them up and divide the clump, if needed.
Small peony divisions may not have enough energy to bloom for a few years.
Peony Moving Steps
Dig around the clump.
Wrap the rootball with burlap to keep it intact.
Place the peony in a wheelbarrow or Tubtrug to transport it to its new location.
Dig a hole a bit larger than the rootball, place the backfill on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow, and mix the backfill with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.
Sprinkle some bulb fertilizer into the hole and backfill.
Place the peony in the hole, and make sure the top of the plant is flush with the soil surface.
Fill in the sides with backfill, and make sure that there are no air holes.
“How do you harvest and grow peony seeds?” Question from Mark of Barrie, Ontario, Canada
Answer: If your peonies successfully cross-pollinated and produced viable seeds that can be induced to sprout, then the plants will develop seed pods that should contain fully mature seeds in late summer or early fall. The round, tough seeds should be harvested as soon as the pods open and begin to turn brown. The seeds will be dark brown to black.
Getting Peony Seeds to Sprout
It takes time and patience to get peony seeds to sprout. Some seeds will produce seedlings in a year and others can take up to three years. Fresh seed will yield the best results. The seeds require a process called stratification, which involves a chilling period of a few months before one can try to induce the seeds to grow. In the case of peony seeds, they need a warm period, chilling period, and warm period. Stratification can be done indoors or outdoors.
The outdoor method is a little less precise and may take longer, but it often yields the best results. As soon as you harvest your seeds, soak them for three to four days in water. Change the water each day. Unhealthy seeds will float, sink, and become soft. Healthy seeds will swell, and remain round and firm.
Collect the healthy seeds, plant them 1.5 inches down, and 3 inches apart in a flat of Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. It contains peat as well as composted bark–a combination favored by peony seedlings. Count the seeds and note their placement to keep track of their progress. Also, be sure to label the flat with the planting date, name, and any other essential information. Place the flat in a safe location in partial shade. Keep it moist through the warm days of fall, then cover the top of the flat with plastic wrap in late fall, and let it remain over the winter. Remove the plastic in early spring, and keep the flat moist through spring. The seeds should begin to sprout by mid to late spring. When they emerge, feed them lightly with a water-soluble, all-purpose fertilizer as soon as their second (true) leaves emerge. Once they reach a few inches, you can transplant them to pots or a location in the garden with good soil. You will need to baby them as they grow. It may be wise to protect them with chicken wire or plastic collars. Placing diatomaceous earth around them should also keep snails and slugs away.
Some seeds may not sprout in the first year. If this is the case, keep the flat in place, maintain moisture through summer, and repeat the stratification process in fall and winter.
Take your healthy peony seeds indoors, place a few in a 4-inch pot filled with Black Gold Seedling Mix. Moisten the pot, and place it under grow lights for a month and a half. Keep the pot moist and make sure the indoor temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees F. After a month, place the pot in an air-filled plastic bag in the refrigerator. The best temperature for stratification is 40 degrees F. Moisten the pot every couple of weeks while it is in the refrigerator–don’t let it get dry. After three months, remove and place it under grow lights. Keep the pots lightly moist, maintain a temperature between 70 and 80 degrees F, and the peony seeds should sprout in a month or two. A heat mat set to warm can help. (Please click here for more detailed information about how to start seeds indoors.)
“What is the best way to care for peonies in the spring?How do you keep the foliage from falling over when it rains?” Question from Diane of Newark, Ohio
Answer: Double-flowered peony (Paeonia lactiflora) blooms are so heavy that even the smallest rain can weigh them down to the ground. Thankfully, this problem is easily fixed. General spring care is simple, too.
Start by completely cutting back the old, brown stalks from last year. Then weed around the crown of the plant, work in an all-purpose slow-release fertilizer, lightly mulch or add a 2-inch layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and then place a perennial cage around the crown. Caging peonies bolsters large, heavy flower heads when rains fall.
It’s time to plant peonies! Nothing says spring like a garden full of bright, beautiful peonies (Paeonia spp.). Their big, fragrant flowers are great for cutting and come in shades of red, pink, white and yellow and may be single, semi-double, or double. The plants themselves are resilient and can live as long as 100 years or more. This is why established clumps of these old-fashioned garden flowers often exist around old homes.
First cultivated in China, where an estimated 41% or the world’s species reside, peonies have been the object of adoration for nearly 4000 years. There are hundreds of variable woody and herbaceous varieties for the garden. All are long-lived and wonderfully beautiful in their own right.
Common garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) are the classic herbaceous peonies found in American gardens. The large, bushy plants produce loads of big, late-spring flowers that are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8. Caging or staking is recommended for double-flowered varieties because weak stems often cause the flowers to flop to the ground in heavy rains. Through summer, these perennials are not very attractive, so it’s best to plant other pretty garden flowers around them for continued seasonal interest. In winter, herbaceous peonies die all the way to the ground and old stems should be cut back.
Herbaceous peonies have many flower forms other than standard single, semi-double, and double types. Bomb peony flowers have a big round puff or “bomb” of petals, and Japanese- and anemone-peony flowers have golden puffs of color at the center of the blooms.
Exceptional varieties include the single, clear-pink-flowered ‘Pink Dawn’, the classic pale double pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, the semi-double, peachy coral ‘Coral Charm’, and the white and pale yellow, Japanese-flowered ‘Gold Rush’.
The spare, shrubby habits of tree peonies don’t impress, but the spectacular flowers they produce are some of the biggest and best around. Blooms can reach up to 10” across and come in shades of white, pink, and purplish red as well as burnished yellows and corals. Flowers burst forth from late spring to early summer for a period of around two weeks. Grow them in full sun to partial shade.
Plants are slower growing than herbaceous peonies, and their branches can be brittle, so it is important to protect them from the wind. Even though most are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 4, their buds can be damaged by frost—another reason to plant them in a protected spot.
Great varieties include the American Peony Society Gold Medal Winner ‘Age of Gold’, which has huge golden blooms—often with more than one flower per stem—and reaches 5 feet in height. The semi-double, pink-flowered ‘Hana Kisoi’ is another garden classic that blooms in May and originates from Japan. The brilliant white-flowered ‘Phoenix White’ bears enormous single flowers, grows relatively quickly and will add sparkle to partially shaded gardens.
Intersectional Hybrid Peonies
Intersectional (Itoh) peonies are crosses between tree and herbaceous peonies, and they offer the best characteristics of both. Their big flowers tend to be more like those of tree peonies, but they have herbaceous habits. They bloom in late spring and have stronger stems than standard herbaceous peonies, so staking is not needed.
Itoh peonies were first bred in Japan in the 1960s. Since then lots of stellar varieties have come to the market. Choice varieties include the single, magenta-red ‘America’, the semi-double lemonade colored ‘Bartzella’, and the award-winning ‘Garden Treasure’, which has semi-double flowers of palest tangerine.
All peonies flower best in full, bright sunlight, though tree peonies can take partial shade. Tree peonies should be protected from strong winds and harsh winter exposure, and double-flowered herbaceous peonies must be staked or caged if you want to keep their flowers off of the ground.
Plant new peonies in early spring or fall. Rich garden soil with a neutral pH is best. Soil that is too acid or too alkaline can cause nutrient deficiencies and result in leaf chlorosis (yellowing between the leaf veins). Before planting new peonies, amend the garden soil with fortifying Black Gold Garden Soil. Established peonies can be mulched in spring with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. Plant the roots just below the soil surface. If you plant them too deeply, this can inhibit flowering. Small peony starts may take a year or two before reaching full bloom. Feeding peonies in early spring will support flowering and foliage health.
Large herbaceous peony clumps can be divided in fall. Just be sure to dig the large, fleshy roots deeply, and gently cut new divisions from the parent plant. Mulch new plantings lightly and water them well.
Globe-shaped peony buds attract ants, but the insects won’t damage the flowers. They simply feed on the sweet juices surrounding the unopened petals. Before cutting the flowers for indoor arrangements, just be sure to brush off any lingering ants.
When peonies are in full bloom, they look so impressive! And, you can be sure that they will remain in your garden for years to come, offering lots of sweet-smelling blooms for cutting and enjoyment.
Peonies are a favorite spring flower and I have many in my garden. I have had quite a few people tell me they are a memory flower and reminds them of a parent or grandparent’s garden. For me they bring memories of my grandmother’s garden in Ohio.
A particular early-blooming favorite is Molly the Witch (Paeonia mlokosewitschii) which is the first to bloom in my garden. It is named after a Polish botanist and is a mouthful to pronounce and has the common name of ‘Molly the Witch’. With distinctive foliage and beautiful soft yellow flowers, this may be difficult to find but worth the search.