Peony - a Japanese Dream

Peony

By some estimates, there are as many as 33 different species within the genus Paeonia, known collectively as peonies. Most are herbaceous perennials, though a few are woody shrubs. Peonies have tuberous roots that are a combination of thick storage roots and thin roots designed to absorb water and nutrients. Careful handling of these roots is critical to planting or transplanting peonies, as well as when you are dividing plants to propagate them.

Peonies are categorised in many different ways, such as by flower type or by growth habit. In addition to the familiar garden-variety herbaceous peonies with all their flower variations, there are special types such as fern-leaf peonies (Paeonia tenuifolia), a particularly sensitive and prized species, and tree peonies, which are woody, upright forms. These types have some special planting needs.

How to Grow Peonies

Peonies are classic garden plants that can thrive for decades with minimal care when planted in a spot they like, in soil that meets their needs. One of the longest-lived of all garden plants, peonies are sometimes handed down from generation to generation in families. But it is very important to do the initial planting correctly because peonies can be temperamental about being moved once they are established.

Give each peony plant enough space to grow to maturity without being crowded. That means a 3- to 4-foot diameter for each plant. Peonies are especially prone to grey mould (botrytis) when planted too closely and air cannot flow freely between plants. Choose a location that is sheltered from strong winds. Plant your peonies well away from other trees and shrubs, since they don't like to compete for nutrients and water.

Peonies like a good chill in the winter. In order to set their flower buds, peony roots should be planted relatively close to the soil surface—only about 2 to 3 inches deep. It may feel odd to leave roots so exposed, but peonies actually need this chilling to attain dormancy and set buds.

Bloom time for peonies varies from late spring to late summer depending on variety. 

Peonies need a location that receives at least 6 hours of sun each day, and a full day of sun is even better. 

Soil

Peonies are very adaptable, but ideally, they like a well-drained, slightly acidic soil (6.5 to 7.0 pH). If you are planting in heavy, clay soil, amending with compost or a soil mix labelled for azaleas and rhododendrons will make it easier for your peony plant to settle in. Since peonies can remain in the same spot for upwards of 70 years, taking the time to prepare the soil before planting is time well spent.

Water

Peonies need moist, well-drained soil to thrive. Ideally, they should receive 1 to 2 inches of water weekly. Mulch your peonies to help them retain water and reduce the likelihood of weeds.

Temperature and Humidity

Peonies prefer cooler areas (hardiness Zones 3–8) and do their best when they experience cold winters. They can thrive in relatively wet areas but are not drought-resistant.

Fertiliser

Feed lightly. An annual application of compost mixed with a very small amount of fertiliser around the base of the plant is all that is needed. When you do feed with compost and fertiliser, do it just after the plants have finished blooming.

Don’t smother peonies with mulch in winter. In the first winter season, you can mulch loosely with pine needles or shredded bark, but mulch should be promptly removed in the spring.

Potting and Repotting

Peonies are typically purchased as potted plants at the nursery or as bare roots, often packaged with peat moss or wood shavings in plastic bags. 

When choosing potted peonies, look for healthy specimens without leaf spots or weak-looking stems. When planting from bare tuberous roots, make sure the root clump has at least 3 to 5 "eyes"—small reddish buds that resemble potato eyes. These eyes will eventually elongate and become the plant's stems. A mature peony should be at least 3 or 4 years old before it is divided into bare roots. Peony eyes start off as small reddish buds, similar to the eyes of potatoes. Tuberous clumps with only one or two eyes may still grow, but it will take longer to become established plants.

Transplantation

If an established peony needs to be moved, transplanting should be done carefully to avoid disturbing the roots any more than necessary. These plants can thrive in the same spot for decades, but moving one hastily can bring about its demise. As with any planting, fall is the best time to move a peony.

At the new planting site, till up the soil 12 to 18 inches deep and mix in a 4-inch layer of compost or peat moss.

One or two days before transplanting, water the peony plant with 1 inch of water. Your peony must be well hydrated before moving.

Dig around the root ball of the peony using a sharp spade, getting as much soil as possible.

Slide a tarp under the root ball to keep it intact, then lift the plant from the ground and carefully carry or slide it to the new location.

At the new location, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the peony's root ball and exactly as deep as the root ball.

Plant the peony at exactly the same depth as it was in its old location. Backfill around the plant. Tamp the soil down with your hands, but do not pack it too tightly.

Water thoroughly. Add a 3-inch layer of compost or mulch around the base of the plant. This will keep the roots moist and cool while the plant is establishing itself in its new location.

Dividing

Peonies are best propagated by lifting and dividing the root clump, then immediately replanting the divided pieces. A peony may require this after about 10 years when it begins to lose its vigour and becomes root-bound. 

Dig up the entire plant and remove as much soil as possible by soaking with a hose.

Using your hands, manipulate the roots into dividable portions, each with three to five eyes, then use a sharp knife to cut the tuberous root clump into divisions.

Cut away all the tiny roots on each division, leaving only the large, fleshy roots.

Replant the divisions as soon as possible, following the instructions above.

How to Grow an Itoh Peony

Known as "intersectional hybrids," the Itoh peony combines qualities from both of its parent plants: tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. As a result, they have enormous, long-lasting blooms and strong stems, as well as dark green, lush, deeply lobed foliage that lasts until autumn. Since they also have the mounded growth habit of herbaceous peonies, they’ll die back to the ground in the winter.

With flowers that can spread up to eight inches across and petals that encircle yellow stamens, Itoh peonies come in a variety of vibrant colours, including coral, pink, red, and white, as well as their signature yellow.

As with most peony species, these plants make beautiful additions to cut flower arrangements, and they are considered easy to grow, remarkably beautiful, and even have a fragrant lemon scent. They can often be found in perennial borders as well as mixed with other shrubs, but Itoh peonies also work as a stand-alone plant or in groups—even as hedges.

Named after Japanese botanist Toichi Itoh, who was the first to successfully cross a tree peony with a herbaceous peony in the 1940s, the Itoh peony became beloved for both its lush green foliage and its giant, beautiful blooms. It remains highly in demand to this day.

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