How to Grow Gorgeous Peonies

Peony plants are surprisingly easy to grow, and will produce gorgeous, show-stopping blooms for decades if properly maintained!

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Here in North Carolina (zone 7b), once the first spring blooms of tulips and daffodils start to fade, peonies come on strong. Blooms start in mid-April, hit their stride in May, and then finish up in June.

To start growing peonies, your first step is to find a good supplier of bare roots. We get ours from Terra Ceia Farms, and the quality is incredible. Here’s what they look like:

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In North Carolina’s hot and humid weather, Festiva Maxima and Sarah Bernhardt seem to do especially well, but there are so many amazing varieties that it’s hard to choose. Be sure to plant your peonies in the fall, so that the roots really have time to establish themselves before spring. I usually plant mine in mid-November, but October is fine as well!

Once you’ve made your selections and have ordered your bare roots, it’s important to choose the right location for your plants. They need an area that drains well and has at least 6-8 hours of full sunlight per day. Keep them away from other large plants and trees (you don’t want anything shading the peonies or competing with them for nutrients), and for optimal growth, soil pH should be around 6.5. Contact your local extension agency to find out how to test and amend your soil, and if you’re in North Carolina, you can test your soil for free!

Ok, so now that you have the perfect spot, space the plants 3-4 feet apart, and for each plant, dig a hole big enough to fit the root. Layer a couple of inches of nutrient rich soil or compost in the bottom, put in your root with the eyes facing up, and cover so that the eyes are only 1 or 2 inches below the ground. I don’t plant mine more than 1’’ below the surface…if you plant too deep, the peonies will not bloom!

I don’t fertilize, but I do mulch as a form of weed control. I usually mulch the peonies twice per year: once in early spring when the plants are small, and then again later in spring when they are bigger.

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For young plants, I pinch off the flower buds in early spring for the first 2-3 years to keep the plants from blooming. Doing this encourages the plant to put all its energy into the roots and leaves, creating stronger, healthier plants. But, even if you miss a few buds on your young plants and they end up producing a flower or two, don’t worry—the plants will be fine!

I’m also careful not to over-water the plants. They need about 1” of water per week, and if they don’t get that from the rain, we water them at the root to avoid getting the leaves unnecessarily wet, which can cause disease.

Mature plants can produce 30-50(!!) blooms per plant. However, I never harvest more than half of the blooms from each plant in order to keep it strong and healthy for the next year. The kids love helping with the harvest; the peony patch is fragrant and gorgeous, and it’s easy for them to harvest the flowers and strip the leaves.

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To maintain the health of our plants, we make sure to deadhead regularly and remove any leaves affected with botrytis, and we also make sure to cut the plants down to ground after the first hard frost, which for us is usually in late October or early November.

Honestly, we always have plants with botrytis, so it’s not something to panic about. I don’t spray the plants with anything, but I do make sure to keep removing any diseased leaves. Once I cut the plants down after the frost, they are fine the following spring. Just be sure to completely remove diseased leaves and debris from your garden, and don’t use those leaves as compost or mulch.

If you want to hold onto your peonies for a few months, harvest them in '“marshmallow” stage (soft to the touch, showing some color, but not fully open yet), and store them dry in your fridge or cooler.

Can you spot the the ladybug on this marshmallow-stage peony?

Can you spot the the ladybug on this marshmallow-stage peony?

When you are ready for your peonies to bloom, take them out of the cooler, recut the stems, pop into a vase, and put in a sunny, warm spot. They should fully open within a day!

We use our peonies in floral designs for our early summer weddings, and we always have plenty left for Mother’s Day and our flower CSA.

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We also love wrapping up a few of the fragrant blooms and giving them to brides that tour the barn in May!

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Kara Brewer