How to grow Peonies

Peonies have it all; wonderful large flowers and high scent.

Peonies are a clump forming herbaceous perennial which returns reliably each year. The most commonly grown Peonies flower in early summer and have large saucer like flowers, some with multiple ruffled petals and a central boss contrasting in white or yellow. The best varieties of peonies are scented, and have multiple flower blooms. If you are creating a scented garden, Peony needs to be in the border somewhere. The one downside of growing Peony, possibly, is that the flowers are not very long lasting.

How to plant and care for Peony

Peonies need to be planted in a sunny spot with good humus rich, well-drained soil. Gardening advice often states Peony needs to be grown in soil which tends to be Alkaline. Don't let this put you off growing them in your garden, I have successfully grown Peonies in acidic soil without any problem. 

What is most important when planting a Peony is not to plant the crown too deep. The crown should be around 2.5 and 5 cms below soil level, so quite shallow. If Peony tubers are planted too deeply, there is a risk of lots foliage but no flowers. The planting depth is important: too deep and it will inhibit flowering. If you mulch, take care not to mulch over the crown. 

If you have a Peony which is not flowering, it could be because it's been planted too shallow. Dig it up and replant to the correct depth, more information below. 

How to Stake a Peony

I always stake  Peonies, and its  better to stake early and let the plant grow into the support. It's best to stake early, to avoid  the nerve-racking task of trying to thread leaves and flower stalks into the plant support without breaking anything. Peonies only flower the once, so if a flower head is snapped, it will not flower again. Depending on growing conditions, this means staking Peony around late March/early April. You can use custom made Peony supports such as the metal one illustrated below. The support can be moved up the Stake shaft as the plant grows and it will support the large blooms. 

Alternatively, you can use organic material such as off cuts, branches, saved from pruning and these look natural, and are free. The video below shows How to Stake a Peony, and other perennials.

There is a slight downside to growing Peony. If there is poor weather,  because of their large blooms, which are their very attraction, they do not fare well in heavy rain or winds. Staking, which supports the flower heads, can help ameliorate the worst effects of weather.I have labelled Peony amber wheel barrow showing medium effort and maintenance. Peony are not fool-proof, but they return reliably every year. 

At the end of the season, the foliage can look unsightly and it is best to cut it down. As a herbaceous perennial Peonies die right back to bare earth in the winter; the emerging spring growth is attractive, see image below right.

8 of the Best Peonies to Grow for Scent

Paeonia lactiflora 'Miss America'

Many Peonies are wonderfully scented you just have to pick the right one. Mostly, it is the Peony lactiflora  group which is scented, illustrated is (likely to be) P.'Miss America' which is strongly scented. Also in this group with discernable scent are: P,'Mothers Choice' a blush coloured flower with good scent: P. 'Festiva Maxima' a white double flower with flecks of crimson; P. 'Henry Bockstoce' bright red double flowers ( a lactiflora and officinalis cross) P. 'Duchesse de Nemours' an old variety, lemony white flowers said to smell like lily of the valley; and P. Hawaiian Coral'. Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt' is another old-fashioned very popular scented variety which can be found for sale at Thomposn and  Morgan (affiliated link) It has double flowers in soft pink. P ‘Karl Rosenfield’ has large magenta blooms, yellow boss and good scent. These are just a few of the  many varieties worth checking if you are looking for Scent., 

Best Peonies Flowers to Grow

Peony is also grown for the fantastic, showy flowers. Selecting a Peony which has the RHS garden merit award is always a good guide. Popular varieties with the RHS award are Peony officinalis 'Rubra Plena'(not scented) lovely showy red flowers; P 'Bowl of Beauty' which has delicate pink petals with a dense centre of creamy white, illustrated top left; P. 'Sarah Bernhardt'  lovely double rose like pink flowers which scented; P. 'Chocolate Soldier' (not scented) red single flowers with yellow stamens.  Many of the Japanese Peonies have the most interesting flowers with ruffles and contrasting stamens. This affiliate link to  Crocus is to P. 'Sword Dance,' which is a Japanese style peony.  The double Peonies have the largest flowers. This affiliate link is to P lactifolia 'Angel Cheeks' a stunning soft pink double with very large flowers. You can see the difference in flower types.

Crocus have about 20 excellent showy varieties of Peony for sale, including many mentioned here. Link to Crocus Peony selection.

Peony flowers come in four shapes: a single flower head which has a large central boss; semi double, which is similar to a single but with more petals; double which has more petals, often ruffled, filling the centre and with no discernible boss; and the anemone form which has single or semi-double flowers with the centre filled with petaloids, such as in the 'Bowl of Beauty' which makes it very attractive.

How to move Peonies

It is said that Peonies dislike to be moved; I am not sure I entirely agree. So if you have planted a Peony in the wrong place, don't despair, move it. I have moved several peonies and here's how.

The best way to move a Peony is early in the season before the plant has developed too much leaf. Secondly, quickly, with plenty of the existing soil attached to the roots to cause as little disturbance as possible. Dig up the plant and keeping it as intact as possible and transfer straight away, re plant at the correct level and water well. You can also move in autumn.

The key to moving a Peony successfully is as little root disturbance as possible.

emerging peony by the sunday gardener
Staking a Peony using metal supports

Peony Wilt

Peony Wilt is a disease specific to peonies, in a similar way to Clematis Wilt.

It is caused by Botrytis paeoniae, causing grey fuzzy fungal growth at the base, and looks like the grey mould typical of a Botrytis infection. Stems can wilt and wither. On the leaves, it can appear as brown patches.

Cut off all diseased parts, which may involve cutting the plant right back. Hygiene is the only defence, cutting and removing infected material especially around the base as the spores can lie dormant in the soil only to emerge next year. Clear away any leaves on the soil. Good air circulation can help so it is best not to plant too close together.  There are no effective chemical controls.  Fortunately, it's rare.

grey mould botrytis

Peonies are of medium difficulty to grow, mainly because they do need to be staked to support the flower heads. They also need to be planted in the right place to start.

Last updated 22.12.2023