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Peonies - When, Where and How to Plant

Peonies Part 2 - When, Where and How to Plant Herbaceous and ITOH Peonies

So, you’ve decided to grow peonies! If so, here’s the information you’ll need to be successful in planting and getting your peonies off to a good start. Since herbaceous and ITOH peonies are similar in growth habit, the advice in this blog applies to both of these peony types.

When to Plant?

Figuring out when to plant a peony is the first step. In most of the US, the best time to plant peonies is in the early fall, so they have time to establish themselves for their performance the following year and be able to better handle the summer heat as a newbie plant. We're lucky to garden in the Pacific NW Zone 8 west of the Cascade mountains where planting in the spring is very doable since our summers and winters tend to be more mild (especially on the OR and WA coast).

While you may not get any blooms from your roots this year by planting in the Spring, consider that a good thing because your plant is investing all of it's growing energy into developing a good root system before winter dormancy, which should make it stronger and more likely to bloom next Spring. That said, some peonies may take up to 3 years to bloom. My experience is that they usually bloom the second year after planting if not the first year.

Where to Plant? - Knowing how they grow will help!

Finding the right place for your peony to grow is the second step. Peonies prefer a sunny spot with really good drainage. They won't mind a bit of shade, especially in the heat of the day, but need at least 6-8 hours of direct sun to thrive. Less than that and your plants will likely be less robust and will have less blooms. In addition, peony roots may rot if planted in an area that is too wet or doesn’t have enough drainage. If you've got heavy clay soil that doesn't drain well, not to worry. You could build a raised bed or create a raised area to plant them in as well as put a bit more effort into preparing your planting spot by incorporating sand and compost and breaking up the clay. More below on this.

Herbaceous and ITOH peonies will grow in a "clump" with foliage approximately 3' or even a bit taller. Blooms generally rise above the foliage another foot or so. So, if you're planting them in an existing flower bed, you would most likely want to site them near the back of the bed, leaving space up front for shorter plantings. Tucking them into an existing landscape between shrubs works great to add color and texture, and in this case you might want to put them near the front of the bed or in a space between shrubs.

Either way, give them room because the peony "clump" at the ground level may not take up a lot of space, but the foliage at the top of the plant will spread out and need a lot more room. Also, each year that "clump" is going to get larger with more stems and more blooms, so plant it at least 3’ away from the canopy of woody shrubs or 2’ away from root systems of other plants in your garden. Try to stay away from planting too close to trees (minimum 10’ away) as their roots also may compete with the peony’s for nutrients.

How to Plant a Bare Root Peony

Now that you’ve located the perfect spot, you’re ready to plant your bare root peony. It’s time to get your hands (or your gloves) dirty. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A shovel

  • About 1 cup of balanced fertilizer such as 5-5-5 or 10-10-10 (I prefer organic fertilizers because they feed your plants without damaging the natural balance of the beneficial microbes in your soil that are needed for plant health, like chemical fertilizers do.)

  • About ½ cup of dolomitic lime (this will reduce acidity of your soil and add calcium and magnesium which most of our West of the Cascades maritime soils are deficient in.)

  • Organic Compost or well aged manure

Now, take a good look at your peony root and identify where the crown is - it’s the spot where the buds are sprouting from. The root(s) - it could have just one or several - usually hang “down” from the crown, which helps tell you which way is “up” on the crown. Occasionally, you might end up with a root where both the bud sprouts and the roots are hanging “down” from the crown. Bud sprouts grow towards the light and/or can be influenced by gravity, so it is possible that during storage and shipping the root was situated in a way that caused the buds to sprout down. Don’t be fooled by this! You’ll always plant with the crown of the plant up or even a bit sideways and the roots pointing slightly down or sideways. Trust me, after planting, gravity will shift those down facing buds to grow up and out of the soil.

Back to the planting spot you’ve prepared. You’ll need to plant the root so that the crown of the plant (where the buds are sprouting from) will end up approximately 1-2” below the level of your bed. Keeping this in mind, remove dirt from the hole, tamping down the soil left in the hole to remove any air pockets. I like to leave a small mound in the hole that the crown will rest on when I plant the root, leaving the root(s) to cascade down the side of the mound and allowing them to end up approximately 2 or no more than 3” below the soil level rather than burying the roots straight down deep into the hole. If you understand how a peony grows you’ll see the logic in this method of planting. Here’s a video that demonstrates this planting method:

Finally, cover the root with soil and tamp the soil down around it. It’s a good idea to water it in well to help settle the soil around the roots and let the root know it’s good to grow. Another advantage of planting in Spring in our climate is that generally we get generous amounts of rain that will keep your ground moist and your peony watered, at least for a couple of months after planting. After that, you should be sure to give your new peony a good deep watering once a week throughout the summer and into fall until the rains return. During exceptionally hot weeks, a second watering is a good idea, and if you have very fast draining sandy soil, more may be needed to keep your new plant hydrated.

This should get your peony off to a great start! I welcome your comments and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or add those to our comment section and I’ll get you an answer.

Next I’ll tell you how to harvest blooms and care for your peony over the long run.


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