Peonies, with their showy, sometimes sweet-scented blooms, are perennial standouts. Originally used medicinally and spiritually, they later gained favor as ornamental landscape additions. As their popularity grew, so did the practice of hybridizing them to enhance bloom color, size and scent. North American growers in the 1800s hybridized so many varieties, that the American Peony Society was formed in 1904 to help standardize and oversee nomenclature. Today's peony cultivars are separated into five bloom categories and are named after the famous and not-so-famous, physical characteristics and even emotions. Their successful growth requires some basic knowledge and continuous care.
Peonies can live for more than 50 years, but some requirements are necessary to help them get established. Bush or herbaceous peonies grow well in USDA zones 2 to 8, and tree peonies in zones 4 to 8. Well-drained soil with a pH range of 6.5 to 7.5 is a must, as is a spot that receives between six to eight hours of daily sunlight. The location should also have good air movement to deter diseases, and plants should be planted 3 to 4 feet apart.
Planting should take place in early fall or as soon as soil is workable in the spring. An area 3 feet in diameter is required for peonies to grow. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate roots and organic matter. Adding organic matter, like well-rotted manure or course sphagnum peat moss will give the plant a good growing start. Peonies are particular about deep they like to be planted. The buds, or "eyes," which are bright red knobs, must be planted no more than 1 to 2 inches below the surface, or else blooming will be affected.
Mulch and Fertilizer
In the fall, plants should receive 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch, like straw, shredded bark or wood chips, to protect them from harsh winter weather. In the spring, when shoots are 3 to 4 inches high, the University of Vermont Extension suggests applying "a complete, dry synthetic fertilizer such as 5-10-5 or 10-10-10, or an organic fertilizer like 5-5-5 at a rate of 3 to 4 pounds per 100 square feet of bed area." Fertilizer should be soaked into the ground with water immediately.
Support and Pruning
Peony flowers, particularly if they are heavy, double blooms, can often weigh down stems, causing flowers to rest on the ground. Peony cages are sold at some garden centers, or stakes can be placed close to the flower and stems loosely secured to them with string to combat drooping. Pruning should be done in late fall, just before the first frost.
North Dakota State University says flowers for bouquets or vases should be cut as soon as their outer petals unfold. Ends can be snipped again underwater and immediately placed in a container to make blooms last longer. When picking, as many leaves should be left on the plant as possible, which provide food for next season's growth and blooming.