Keep Them Coming Back: Peony Plant Care
Okay, so you've had a successful peony root planting, now what? Here we teach you how to keep those beauties coming back for more year after year.
First Year Roots, Second Year Shoots, Third Year Flowers
The above is a popular old saying that applies to peonies. This is of course dependent on the variety. Herbaceous Lactiflora peonies typically follow this timeline, while some hybrids can have a small amount of blooms in the second year.
If one thing does ring true, the hardest part about taking care of peonies is the planting of the roots. Done well, it will make all the difference in the future. Thereafter, peonies are very simple to care for!
First Year Roots
As outlined in our planting article, when planted in the correct location, at the right depth, and time of year (fall), most peonies go on to thrive. In the first year the plant is focussed on developing a strong root system. It is very important that you plant your peony roots in the fall.
Roots planted in the spring are roots typically left over from the fall. These roots miss out on a critical period of dormancy and fail to gain the nutrients needed to develop into a strong, viable plant. Spring planting can delay a peony plant's development for up to two years and event cause the plant to die if planted after shoots have already formed.
When planted in fall (typically October in Canada), roots with viable 'eyes' have the opportunity to establish themselves, absorb key nutrients, and create a strong microbiome. Over winter, the root enters into a dormancy period that is critical to the plant's development. Peonies thrive in the cold winter climates of Canada and Alaska. In fact, Alaska is one of the biggest peony cut flower producers in North America.
After a period of dormancy, the dormant buds (eyes) will begin to form into leafy shoots that unfurl much like ferns. During this time, new plants may need some watering. Be careful not to water from above to prevent the growth of mold. A common fungus that affects peonies is botrytis. It typically strikes during cold, wet springs causing a grey mold to form on the leaves and stems of the plant. It can be prevented by spacing plants correctly, using fungicides, and through proper watering techniques and planting in well drained soil.
To enhance the growth of healthy shoots, early bulb fertilizer can be added in the spring. During the second year, your peony shoots will likely only develop into a green leafy shrub. If buds appear in the second year, you can disbud (take off) side buds to send nutrients back to the development of the roots, shoots, and main buds. If your peony plant is older, spring is the time to stake older varieties whose stems tend not to be as strong as some of the newer hybrid varieties.
The best time to cut peonies for bouquets is during the bud stage. Certain peony varieties are best cut during certain phases of the bud stage. Be sure to research this for the varieties you grow in order to enjoy the longest vase length. Peonies cut in the bud stage can also be kept in a fridge to delay their development for several weeks; therefore, extending your enjoyment of the peony season well into summer or reserving them for special events.
After the herbaceous peony bloom season of May and June, remove any leftover spent flowers, leaving the foliage. As peonies mature, they become more drought tolerant. Young plants may need watering though. Be sure to remove grasses and weeds from around the base of your plants as they can steal vital nutrients from the plant. Overall, peonies require very little care throughout the summer and into early fall.
Fall is the time to cut herbaceous peony plants to the ground in preparation for dormancy. Be sure to remove all dead leaves and shoots from the garden area. Doing so will prevent the spread of diseases and botrytis. Fall is also the time to split mature mother plants.
My alma mater the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) has a great video on how to divide peonies. They also have a care calendar . If you ever get a chance to visit, the University of Michigan has one of the largest peony gardens in North America. Nichols Arboretum houses over 800 plants and over 270 different cultivars. My years at Michigan is where my love of peonies really developed.