Perfect Peonies

Sleep, Creep, Leap! That’s how peonies roll.

Hailing originally from the Far East, Paeonia officinalis, the beautiful peony has become a favourite around the world.

The explorer Marco Polo described them as being ‘roses as big as cabbages’ when first setting eyes on them. They bring quantities of magnificent large blooms in most colours adding their delicate scent to the garden and your table.

For many years it was well near impossible to get your hands on these elusive lovelies. They need extremely cold weather so that their roots can get cold enough to thrive. Luckily, breeders and growers have been working on herbaceous cultivars that will grow in South Africa.  

To start off with, just remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s quite likely that your perfect peony may just outlive you! Just follow these easy hints and tips and your grandchildren may still have it around in years to come.

The main thing is to understand that they need to become well-established and you’ll need to give a new plant generally three years before it will start producing flowers in profusion. Then these long lived plants – with a little help from you – will in all likelihood flourish for many, many years. Peonies only flower for one month in a year but the beautiful display is definitely worth it.

Peonies need a location where they’ll receive full sun to light dappled shade – preferably morning sun and afternoon shade; especially where it gets really warm on a winter afternoon. Any less light and they won’t bloom as well. Make sure the soil is well-draining. If you’re worried that it may remain too moist after rain add some coarse sand, perlite and peat moss to improve drainage. They’re not happy with wet feet and this may lead to the roots rotting.

Peony root stock looks absolutely nothing like the end result. Instead, they look like gnarly witch fingers to start off with. You’ll plant with the tips of the roots pointing down and the pinkish growing points or ‘eyes’ 1 – 5 cm below soil level – depending on where you live and the climate. If you’re in a much colder region, go deep; warmer, go shallow. The depth measurement is important. If you plant too deep, the roots will grow and foliage will pop up but you may end up with fewer flowers.

As they live for years you’ll need to make sure that you add nutrients so, when planting, add compost to the soil. Once you’ve got them in the ground water well and allow the soil to settle around the roots. This will help anchor the plant for the future. Mulch well with bark chips or compost to maintain a constant temperature but make sure you don’t cover the top of the plant.

Peonies don’t like having to compete for food, light and moisture so do not plant them too close to trees or shrubs. If you’re planting more than one give them a meter space between them to ensure good air circulation and avoid humid air which would give diseases a chance to take hold. Peonies are susceptible to some pests and diseases such as botrytis blight which is a fungus that may cause young shoots to rot and prevent flower buds from developing. However, good spacing and lots of fresh air will help mitigate this issue. If you notice their leaves curling; it’s a sign of stress usually due to lack of water or weather conditions that aren’t quite right. Fortunately, ants aren’t one of the problems. In fact, ants eat the nectar and attack bud eating pests so leave them alone ane let them keep your peony safe.

Then wait for spring! When the foliage comes through it looks like red or bright pink asparagus shoots but they will soon change to green as the leaves develop. It is important to remember that you may not get any or many buds or flowers in the first couple of years. This is a waiting game so try not to be too disappointed.

If you want large flowers remove the side-buds that develop near the base of each terminal bud.

However, to prolong the blooming season leave the side-buds alone — they will bloom later than the terminal buds. If you’re cutting for the vase, make sure that you leave at least three buds on every stem. If you remove half the blooms from any clump it could crucially damage the food reserves.

Thereafter, water your perfect peonies during the growing season if it doesn’t rain. Remember that a deep watering every 5-7 days is better than giving them a bit every couple of days. If your soil is poor, feed in summer after they’ve bloomed with a liquid fertiliser and possibly (if you don’t have digging dogs) give them a boost with some bonemeal 3 – 4 times a year.

Deadhead them as soon as the blooms begin to fade. Once flowering is over they make a lovely low hedge with glossy leaves which should last all summer, turning purplish-red or golden in autumn.

These babies need some serious chill time and a fairly long dormancy period. Cut off foliage in mid-May to simulate dormancy and avoid any overwintering diseases. Make sure you’ve marked where the root is so you don’t mistakenly dig it up.  Then leave them alone. Don’t transplant any of them if you want to see flowering that year.

If you’re growing in containers you’ll need quite a large container as the root systems get pretty big over time. Ensure it has plenty of drainage holes and remember you’ll probably have to water more frequently than ground-planted plants as containers do dry out fairly quickly. Pots do have the advantage of keeping the roots cooler if you put them in the right spot and you can move them around to the right place.

Above all – Just be patient.

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