For many the Peony flower reaches the pinnacle of flowers, but growing peonies for many comes as a challenge. In this article you’ll hear from two experts passionate about the peony and the differences in growing a tree peony.
Question: I’ve tried growing peonies with little success so far and would like to know why. I want to try again and want to know how to grow peonies right this time. Can you give some guidelines for planting and growing peonies? Elton, Illinois
Answer: Elton, Peonies are a sedative to the tired mind and weary body. To produce them requires no engraved parchments designating degrees in entomology, plant pathology, political chaos, or any other department of science, as the noble peony hath few hugs or ailments.
Only elementary knowledge is necessary, such as being competent to distinguish a hoe from a horse. Assuming that a “majority of readers” are qualified to pass that test, concentration will be focused on the simple elements that are the basis of the miracle of producing prizewinning honors.
Digging The Hole
It was discovered, many centuries ago and has since become traditional, that it is necessary to have a hole in the earth if one wishes to bury the ungainly root of a peony. It was amazing how the idea spread, also how unpopular it became.
Regardless of public opinion, I place myself on record as being a disbeliever of the theory that a hole big enough to bury a piano is necessary to plant a peony root only big enough to cover the outstretched hand.
And it’s fitting to remark that the smaller the hand size, the better the root size. I have arrived at the flawless conclusion that you should never dig a hole 2 feet deep when the bottom level of a properly prepared root division is rarely in excess of 8 inches in depth.
Hole Depth Logic
The logic supporting this conclusion is that a hole that is too deep will eventually cause the earth to settle and thus drop the eyes of the peony root more than 2 inches below ground level.
The eyes should not be below this depth. If the hole is dug somewhat deeper than necessary, some of the earth can be replaced and pounded down solidly with the fist until the roots are resting firmly on the compacted base.
The eyes should be adjusted to the proper depth, 2 inches below grade level. The hole is then half-filled with soil and water added. After the water has soaked in, the balance of the hole is filled.
A full shovelful of loose earth is added on the top and gently firmed with hand pressure. Settling of loose earth around the root will eventually absorb this surplus mound of earth.
So, up to this point we’ve proudly planted a root! But what kind of a root? Is it a slip cut off the side of a plant in the garden of a generous friend who has ruthlessly injured a good plant by good intentions?
If you ever receive such a slip my advice is to thank your friend and sneak home and cremate it; but for goodness sake don’t plant it!
Its valiant battle against insurmountable odds will be too great, and your anticipations and efforts are almost certain to be unrewarded. Confine your acquisitions to good varieties from dependable nurserymen who make a specialty of selling young, vigorous root divisions. The highest rated varieties obtainable can be purchased for very reason prices.
Growing Peonies: Planting Preparation
Don’t assume that divisions received from all commercial growers are ready to plant. You have a job to do! Examine the roots, and if any fibrous roots are present – remove them, leaving the trunk roots as clean as a sweet potato.
Use a small, sharp blade – not a spade or shovel – and start removing deformed and superfluous lateral roots that would develop and expand, eventually crowding the trunk roots and choking off the food supply. A star-shaped root pattern is ideal.
Trim back all roots that extend beyond the limits of your outstretched hand, making a sloping cut similar to the type used in tree surgery. This type of cut calluses nicely and prevents the growth of a “witch’s broom” extension of new roots. Upon this surgical performance depends that difference between inferior and superior plants and flowers.
Trim Then Soak
After trimming and shaping the roots, soak them in water for a few hours before planting. Overnight soaking is all right, too, as they will only absorb a limited amount of water. If planting a sufficient number to make the trouble worth your while, get the fungicide – Captan – and give them a 15-minute dip.
Aside from the precautionary benefits of its fungicidal purpose, this seems to, add vigor to the plant. I have used it on some expensive but anemic roots and they came up well and grew into fine plants.
Plant roots in early September for best results. Then they will have time to establish feeding roots before the ground freezes. Claims are made that properly stored roots can be planted in the spring. To this, I can only say, “Travel at your own risk.”
After planting has been completed. drive an 18-inch stake into the ground with its base at the outer edge of the filled in hole and the upper end directly over the crown and a foot or so above it. This will act as a guard to prevent cats, dogs and clumsy friends from tramping on the tender young shoots and ruining the plant.
Cover With Mulch During 1st Winter
Cover with a mulch the first winter to prevent spring heaving. Branches from your discarded Christmas tree make a splendid covering. These should be put on after the ground has frozen.
When you remove the branches in spring, do not remove the mound of surplus earth. Let spring rains and settling take care of that. To have good, strong, sturdy plants, don’t baby them. Old Mother Nature looks after her kids and prefers them to fight so they will become tough and sturdy.
What About The Soil For Peonies
Peonies prefer an average garden soil – not too rich. They like a clay subsoil for it gives the roots firm anchorage; a loose, sandy soil is not at all to their liking.
Give young plants a good soaking at intervals during the hot, dry weather, especially the first season. And do not fertilize! Normally they have no need for added food for at least five years after planting.
Compost, if available, is the ideal food. Add a bit of agricultural limestone to the compost. This combination makes a splendid diet. Better too little food than too much, as they are susceptible to “indigestion” if overfed.
An occasional shallow hoeing to form a dust mulch is all that is necessary. This mulch insulates the soil surface, keeping the roots cool and moist. The compact and bushy foliage of a mature plant shades the crown and shallow upper roots. It pays to devote a bit of time to cultivation, for next year’s results are a reflection of this year’s care.
Peony Transplanting Tips
The curse of peony growing is transplanting plants after they are once established. In a well planned garden this does not happen. However, if a plant must be relocated, start at the beginning and redivide and retrim.
Even experts have little success in transplanting an entire clump, regardless of size or season. Yes, it will grow, but you are destined to always have a sulky plant with mediocre flowers.
Some wise-guy will be happy to refute that statement claiming that he had “done it hundreds of times;” but let his flowers be the proof! Use discretion in establishing a permanent location, keeping away from tree roots and the ever expanding growth of shrubbery.
Your plants, if properly located and undisturbed, will reward you with decades years of super-service. Do not attempt to redivide old worn-out plants; junk them as you would an old car and purchase new stock of vigorous two- to three-year-old plants propagated for this purpose.
It is pitiful to see plants squeezed into a location unsuitable for healthy growth and development. They must have room to form a pattern. An area of 3-1/2 feet should be allotted to give each plant the privilege of displaying its full charm.
Like trees and shrubs, peonies are affected by crowding, becoming misshapen, “leggy” and unattractive. Restrict the number of plants, but never their space.
For landscape material the peony is an ideal medium. Low plants, tall plants with stature and plants of average size enable the DIY landscape designer to select adaptable specimens for specific usage and compositional effects.
If judicious selection is made to extend the blooming period, it will range over a period of several weeks or more. Each variety has a fixed habit of blooming – from a very early to a very late period – and familiarity with this habit is a valuable asset in plant assembly.
Buds cut late in the evening when about three-fourths open are best for interior table use. Put the stems in water immediately after cutting and store in a cool basement overnight.
A few hours after they are brought into light and warmth you will feel the urge to rouse all the neighborhood to bear witness of your ability to produce a product of supernatural beauty.
If you’ve planted a root carefully and the following spring only a small puny plant with one to three stalks appears don’t be impatient. You’re in for a big surprise! That timid little “fellow” is busily building a sturdy foundation under his abode.
When the third year arrives you’ll be amazed with blooms that will make you strut your stuff for your neighbors. If you lack patience, plant potatoes!
Four Peony Types
Almost all of our garden peonies are of Chinese origin, known botanically as the chinensis species. In its original form this species was a true single. It is also known as albiflara and sinensis. Through the work of hybridists, three other types have been developed, making four distinct types in all, namely: singles, Japanese, semidoubles and doubles.
There is confusion in the minds of some laymen as to the interpretation of the words type and variety. Type represents a specific form, while variety is the name given any plant to identify it from another.
There are only four peony types, but hundreds of varieties. The word form is often used as a descriptive feature common to certain varieties, such as rose-form, etc., but this term has no allusion to type.
The following is a descriptive outline of the four types:
The single type has one row of petals known as guard petals. In the center of the flower is a yellow cushion of stamens, and in the center of this cushion is a starfish-shaped group of carpels (pistils) which eventually become the seed pod. The tip of the carpel is the stigma.
Japanese peonies are quite similar to the singles, except that the cushion is generally heavier due to the transformation of the stamen into staminodes. Staminodes are expanded stamens without anthers (pollen sacs), therefore, no pollen is evident.
This is a determining factor in identification when a similarity exists between the Japanese and single types.
The lack of pollen sometimes makes the Japanese types preferable, as pollen on the petals detracts from their appearance. The pollen is also highly acid and rain will cause it to blacken the petals.
There is a pronounced difference in the size and pattern of the staminodes, varying from threadlike filaments up to petalodes. Many varieties also have a distinct crinkly foliage.
Next in order come the semidoubles, wherein the stamens, if male, and the carpels, if female, or both if bisexual, are partly transformed into petalodes or full petals. The transition is only partial as all semidoubles retain a portion of the sex parts.
Some of the many different patterns have very compact petals and can only be distinguished from the full double by the stamens interspersed among the petals.
Compact varieties with the stamens so deeply imbedded in the petals as to be invisible are often classed as doubles. The petals are generally loose and open, and due to its informal appearance, the semidouble is favored for artistic effects.
The double type peony is a flower completely devoid of any sex elements – all these parts having reached the full petal development.
Vivid red markings on the center petals of many varieties of both semidouble and double types result from the transition of the carpel into a petal, with fragments of the red stigma being retained.
Considerable interest is being directed to varieties that have a normal habit of producing smaller than average flowers. This class, known as decorative, is not to be regarded as a type as it represents flowers assembled from various types; therefore, it is a class and not a type. Their size, form and colorfulness are attractive in arrangements with or without other flowers.
by G Roy
Growing The Tree Peony
Summary: The tree peonies season produce blooms of exquisite form and delicate texture. One tree peony, given space to show its form and style will add distinction to its whole neighborhood. Learn the “two rules” that will almost guarantee tree peony success.
I have grown tree peonies for years. I well remember my first glimpse of them in the catalog. Even in those little pictures they seemed to be the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen – blooms of exquisite form and delicate texture, heavy buds and dark foliage like forms in Japanese bronze.
After some hunting I found a few tree peonies offered in our area. I bought two. When one flowered into a large flat, semidouble bloom of translucent coral, a color never seen in herbaceous peonies, my surrender was complete. Since then I have become, pretty literally, the slave of the peony.
Many years ago, when I acquired small piece of land, slowly I bought new varieties and soon had 60 plants and set them out in a long block. The ground was carefully drained and manure had been worked in below the planting level.
A cheaply built arbor of poles and slats provided light shade. The flimsy arbor has long since perished and the plants have received no further care, except weeding. They are still, for a week or two every May, and among the thousands of peonies of all varieties around them, the most beautiful sight of the year.
Of course, such a block of bloom is not for everybody. But in the average garden even one tree peony, given space to show its form and style will add distinction to its whole neighborhood.
It is really unfortunate that this lovely plant is one of the rarest of all flowers in our gardens. And, it is in the hope of inducing you to try at least one tree peony that I am writing now.
Planting Tree Peonies Is Different
Planting tree peonies is a different job from setting out most perennials. The average perennial will need attention in three years, more or less. But the peony is planted for all time, or at least for all your time. There are two brief rules that will almost guarantee success.
- The first is dig the ground deeply
- The second, set the crowns at the right depth below the surface of the soil
I will go into more detail.
Perfect Planting Peonies Month
The perfect month to plant tree peonies is September. They can, I suppose, be set a little earlier and October is almost equally satisfactory.
In fact, I have set them successfully as late as November, provided frost is not yet in the ground. But ideally, the plant should be given time to settle comfortably before winter comes.
It is then more or less established by the following spring and may even put forth a little bloom for you then. Spring planting is never so successful. Since the supply of tree peonies is never very great, spring is the best time to order them, with the request that they be shipped for September planting.
For their first winter some sort of cover—leaves, straw, cornstalks, ever green branches—should be laid on the tree peony plants; it need not be deep. After the plants have had a summer’s growth in their new locations you will have no further danger from heaving.
Now, where to set plant peonies? Not where old clumps have been growing. A peony does something to the soil in which it lives to make it inhospitable to other peonies. Set the plants 3 to 5 feet apart each way.
Remember that the peony’s neighbors, too, will grow with the years. If you prepare a rich spot near trees, especially near elms, you will find that in a short time, the peony bed a mat of tree roots which take both food and moisture from the soil at the time peonies need them most.
And, to quote one well known peony grower: “If you are so unlucky or so foolish as to have Carolina populars on your land, 50 feet is too near to plant a peony.”
Peonies grow in any good garden soil, provided it is not too acid. In this rare case lime may be mixed into the soil. Waterlogged locations and spots where water is known to lodge throughout the winter are best avoided. Very hot dry positions are also undesirable. During the first summer, a thorough watering once a week is good.
Planted in full sunlight, the plants will grow most vigorously, but they also do well in partial shade. A hit of shade lengthens the life and delicate tints of many blooms which would droop and fade in full sunlight.
Placing The Tree Peony
As to the tree peony’s effect in the garden, I like to quote William Gratwick of Pavilion, New York, one of our great peony growers, and a landscape architect and sculptor as well:
“A tree peony is usually the most notable plant in a garden and may well be given the place of honor. A single specimen can hold the focal point in an intimate design; two look well as accents on each side of steps or the entrance path; four can be used in a balanced design at the corners of a flagged area reflected in a pool. Or a group of tree peonies are perfectly adapted as a middle ground for the flower border with lilacs in full bloom in the background.”
When it comes to actual planting, provide about 2 feet of good nourishing soil into which the roots can extend as the years go by. It will do no harm to add manure, even if the soil is good sandy or clay loam. But the roots must never come into contact with manure.
It is well to dig deep enough to place about 6 inches of manure in the bottom of the hole, then 2 or 3 inches of loose sweet soil. Set the plant in the hole, filling to the surface with garden soil. If you can add a little leafmold and bonemeal, so much the better.
Some phosphate, potash and lime can be used after the first year, but do not add much nitrogen. Plenty of humus is always good. But no later tinkering at the surface will make up for careless planting in the beginning. Remember always that the peony likes to go downstairs for its dinner!
The usual rule for setting tree peonies is to place the point of junction of the graft 2 or 3 inches below the soil surface. One of our most successful propagators of tree peonies advocates much deeper setting 6 to 8 inches down for the graft junction.
This allows the peony to put out roots from its own stem and gives it a stronger hold on life. In a few years you then have a plant with every stem supplied with its own roots and can, if you wish, easily lift and divide it.
Difficulties Of Growing Tree Peonies
Now what about the “difficulties” of growing tree peonies, about which we hear so much?
Believe me, they are not many. It must be admitted that a single branch will occasionally die without warning from the tip to the ground. Other ailments are few. You may escape them altogether.
Winter spraying with lime sulphur or oil has been recommended for possible scale. The small carpenter bee sometimes enters where a stem has been broken off and eats out the center of the stem down to the ground. Its mischief can be prevented by sealing off the cut stem with paste or wax.
Aside from specialists, I see signs about me of awakening interest in this plant. I receive constant requests for information about tree peony seeds. Lately there have been frequent demands for Paeonia lutea, the wild yellow species, by gardeners interested in crossing it with our present tree peonies. I can think of no more exciting field for the young hybridist.
by P Saunders