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Peonies, with their lush, extravagant blooms and rich history, have captivated gardeners and artists for centuries. Beloved for their beauty and fragrance, peonies have a storied past that dates back thousands of years. Originating in China, where they were revered as symbols of prosperity, honor, and beauty, peonies were cultivated for their medicinal properties as well as their ornamental value. They later spread to Japan, where they became closely associated with the imperial court and were featured prominently in art and literature. 

In Europe, peonies were introduced by traders and explorers returning from the Far East, and they quickly became popular among royalty and aristocrats for their stunning blooms and delightful fragrance. Today, peonies continue to enchant gardeners around the world, carrying on a legacy of beauty and elegance that spans centuries.

Different types of peonies

Peonies are known for their diverse range of types, each offering its own unique characteristics and beauty. Herbaceous peonies are the most common type, with soft, herbaceous stems that die back to the ground in winter. They are prized for their large, showy blooms and come in a wide range of colors, shapes, and forms. This is the variety used for cut flowers. 

Tree peonies, on the other hand, are woody shrubs that retain their structure year-round. They produce large, often fragrant flowers that can range from single to double blooms and come in a variety of colors. The flowers on a tree peony typically bloom earlier than the herbaceous varieties and have stems of 4-5 inches.

Intersectional peonies, also known as Itoh peonies, are a hybrid between herbaceous and tree peonies. They combine the best traits of both, with the herbaceous peony’s die-back habit and the tree peony’s large, showy blooms. Intersectional peonies are known for their long blooming period and strong, sturdy stems. Itoh peonies are more compact, at just 2.5 feet tall, with proportionately shorter stems for the blooms. 

Most gardeners have herbaceous peonies at home. These peonies are popular due to their large, colorful blooms and ease of care. Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground in winter and regrow from the same roots each spring, producing lush foliage and stunning flowers. They are available in a wide range of colors and flower forms, making them a versatile and beautiful addition to any garden.

Choose the variety

Once you decide which type of peony you want—herbaceous, intersectional, or tree—you need to decide which variety. There are now many to choose from! From elegant white to soft pinks and roses, to bright yellow or apricot, there are so many options. Each variety has its unique bloom time, so by incorporating different varieties into your garden you can extend the bloom period. The Itoh types have the longest bloom period of the different types, and the herbaceous have the longest stems for cut flowers. 

Where can you find peony plants?

There are many nurseries that now specialize in peonies and have a wide range of varieties available. Browse the selections and choose your favorites. What will arrive in the spring or fall are what is called a bare root plant, consisting of the roots and the crown. This is what you will plant in your garden.

If you buy from a local nursery or garden center, then you are more likely to find peonies in a container. These will be first year or second year plants. These should be the varieties that grow well in your area. You also have the opportunity to ask any more questions from the good folks at the nursery.

Where to plant

While peonies are fairly flexible about their growing, the different types require different zones. Herbaceous peonies do well in growing zones 4-7, and some varieties can grow in zone 8. Check with your grower or nursery regarding your specific location and how appropriate it is for the type of peony you are considering.

The more sun, the more flowers your peonies will produce. Partial shade will result in the plant needing more time to mature and fewer flowers. It takes about 3-4 years for peony plants to mature, so allow three feet between plants to allow room for growth.

You want to have a good soil mix with a neutral pH and good drainage. Peonies cannot tolerate wet roots, so low lying areas or areas where puddles collect are not good.

Some of the tree peony varieties do well in partial shade. Again, check with your local peony source about your specific habitat and location. Track the sun where you want to plant to ensure the plants will receive all the sunlight they need. 

When and how to plant

Since peonies are cold hardy perennials, you can plant any time in the spring, fall, or winter when you can work the ground if you have bare roots. If you are planting from a container, then make sure the hole is larger than the pot that the peony comes in. The first year, the plant is growing its roots, so it does not matter if more frost or snow is coming. Peonies love that cool soil. Make sure the hole is deep and wide enough to accommodate the roots without being crowded. If the crown has started to produce shoots, make sure they are fully covered by 1-2 inches of soil.

The first growing season, make sure your peony plant gets a good drink of water every 2-3 weeks, but do not overwater. Check the dampness of the soil about an inch below the surface to determine if you need to water. 

Mulch is not recommended as it puts the crown of the plant too far from the light and you will not get many, if any, flowers.

Do peonies need fertilizer?

Growing beautiful flowers is hard work and takes a lot of energy! We use a side dressing of compost to help feed the plants each spring. You can also use worm castings, seaweed fertilizer, or a foliar feed. Make sure the soil is at a neutral pH of 6.5-7. If this is the first year growing flowers, add some fertilizer again in the early summer and late fall for root growth. 

Can you plant peonies in pots?

Peonies are not recommended for containers long-term. They are a long-lived perennial that do best in the ground. It is a large risk to grow peonies in pots. If you want to try, get the largest possible container, minimum 5-gallon pot, preferably a half barrel. Containers need to remain outside in the winter, as peonies need the cold dormant time. If the bottom of the pot freezes, it can inhibit drainage. In addition, growing peonies in pots and then transferring them to the ground when they are mature causes stress to the plant. You can transfer young plants, 1-2 years old, from the pot to the ground, but 4-5 year old plants will be stressed and may not survive the transfer. Peonies do not like to be disturbed.

Can you grow peonies indoors? 

Not really. They need full sun plus they need a winter dormancy period. If you have a sun room for the growing season that can then be a cold room for the dormant season, then it is possible. 

How long do peonies live?

Peonies live for generations! We currently have some peonies that just hit the century mark, as they were planted by my grandmother as a bride in 1924. This is why selecting your site is important. You want a place where the plants will thrive for a long, long time. 

What about peony pests?

If you have white or gray spots covering your leaves, you have powdery mildew. This is a result of too much water, whether rain, high humidity, cool nights, or some combination thereof. Once it shows up, there isn’t much you can do. To prevent it, use a preventative spray of 30% milk/70% water on a sunny day. Do this when the leaves first come out and then once a week until the flower buds appear. The best prevention is air flow, which is why you do not want your peony plants to be crowded. 

How to avoid ants on the peony flowers

What about ants on the peony flowers? They actually serve a beneficial purpose of eating the chafer beetles that chew on  peony leaves and flowers. To avoid bringing ants in with your cut flowers, cut the flowers when they are still in the bud phase. The bud will be soft and feel like a pillow, but the petals are not yet open. Once cut, the flower will open as usual. 

Should you divide your peony plants?

If planted in the proper site,  peonies rarely need dividing. If you want to dig them up and divide the roots, it is best to do so in the fall when the plant is dormant. Keep in mind that all the roots will now act as first year roots; it will take a few years to mature and produce flowers again. 

Do peonies need special care in the winter?

Peonies go dormant for the winter, and are very winter hardy. If you had any spots on leaves or powdery mildew issues, then rake up the leaves and dispose of them. Do not add to a compost pile or leave them near your peony plants, as the disease can winter over. 

Peonies as cut flowers

Cut the flowers in the “soft pillow” stage as described above, before the petals open. This helps you avoid ants and gives you the longest vase life for your flowers.It is best to cut flowers when it is cool, so early morning or late evening. In the bud phase, you can store the flowers in a refrigerator for several months. You can store them out of water by wrapping in paper and laying them flat, or in water—change the water every few days.

Once the flowers are at room temperature, the buds will open to full flower. 

When is the season for peony cut flowers?

It all depends on the weather! In our area in northern Delaware, growing zone 7, we have peonies anywhere from mid-May through early June. Each microclimate will be a bit different, depending on the weather and what varieties the local farm has. Check with your farmer so that you don’t miss out on the magic of these blooms. 


In conclusion, growing peonies can be a rewarding experience that adds beauty, fragrance, and elegance to your garden. Whether you choose herbaceous, tree, or intersectional varieties, these stunning flowers are sure to captivate you with their lush blooms and enchanting fragrance. A combination of the different types will ensure a long period of gorgeous flowers from a variety of heights and shapes. 

By following the tips and techniques outlined in this blog, you can successfully grow and care for peonies in your own garden, creating a colorful and vibrant display that will bring joy for years to come. So, roll up your sleeves, dig in the dirt, and watch as your peonies grow and bloom, transforming your garden into a breathtaking oasis of beauty and charm.

Happy growing!

~ Ruth 

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