Peonies are incredible value for money, lasting 50 years or more once they are established in your borders. Their beautiful flowers make a superb display each summer and are great for adding to cut flower arrangements too. There is a popular myth that peonies are tricky to grow but that’s just not true if you know how to plant them properly. Choosing the right position and planting them at the right depth are the secrets to success; and once they are established they will virtually look after themselves.
Broadly speaking there are two main types of peony - tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. Herbaceous peonies such as Peony lactiflora, will die back to ground level each autumn. Their beautiful red stems will reappear the following spring. However tree peonies, such as Peony suffruticosa, are shrubbier. They produce permanent woody stems that will lose their leaves in winter but the stem itself remains intact above ground level. How you plant your peony will depend on which type you have.
Herbaceous peonies need a sunny spot. Choose a planting position where it will receive at least 6 hours of sunshine a day. They are also quite heavy feeders so they enjoy moist, fertile soil with good drainage. Avoid planting in soggy soils as this is likely to cause the crown of the plant to rot. If your soil is less than perfect then you can improve it by adding plenty of well rotted manure or compost before planting, to improve moisture levels and soil fertility.
Before you plant your herbaceous peony, check to see where the highest bud is on the crown of the plant. The highest bud needs to be planted just 5cm (2") below soil level. It’s important not to plant it too deeply as this can delay or even prevent the plant from flowering. Dig your planting hole with this in mind, making sure that the crown will sit 5cm (2") below soil level. Tamp the soil down gently and don’t forget to water it afterwards to settle the soil.In the first year after planting you can expect lots of red shoots and just one or two small flowers. But by their third year your herbaceous peonies should be producing plenty of large ruffled blooms.
Tree peonies prefer a sunny or semi shaded position that is sheltered from cold winds and shaded from strong early morning sunlight. Like herbaceous peonies, they enjoy a moist, fertile soil with good drainage so you can add some well rotted compost to the planting area first.
Before you plant your tree peony, take a look at the base of the plant for a bulge where the woody stem is grafted to its rootstock. This is really important because it is this graft that determines how deeply the peony should be planted. You will need to dig a hole that is deep enough so that the graft sits 10 -15cm (or 4-6") below ground level. This is much deeper than the planting hole for an herbaceous peony. Don’t worry if this means that most of your plant is below soil level and only a couple of sticks with a little bud on the tip - this is much better than shallow planting and once established your plant will be far more productive for having been planted properly.
Your peonies can live for many years if planted in the right place at the right depth so it’s well worth taking the time to do it properly so that they can reward you with their spectacular blooms, year after year.