The peony is an old-fashioned flower that has been hybridized into a bewildering variety of perennial shrubs and trees bearing simple single to huge multipetalled flowers in dozens of colors and combinations. Setting out to buy a peony or two for the garden has become an adventure in making choices. Don't be intimidated by the number of choices; peonies are rewarding, sturdy spring bloomers. Keep a few simple rules in mind and invest in a few bushes for planting next fall.
Find a home for your plants before going shopping. Peonies need a sunny exposure and rich, well-drained soil. Measure the amount of square footage in your garden that meets these criteria. A typical peony will need 6 to 9 square feet to develop and bloom.
Choose the type of peony you want based on how much work you want to put into its care. Trees often need to be protected over the winter and large shrubs might need staking or cages during bloom to hold them erect. Although peonies are generally healthy, find out which varieties are susceptible to blight and under what conditions they may suffer from powdery mildew.
Join a peony society to learn about the plants and, more importantly, to gain access to society plant sales. Some societies also have seed sales but understand that raising peonies from seed takes up to seven years to produce a flowering plant.
Purchase plants that have been grown locally or at the very least in your hardiness zone. These plants have been successful enough to live through your winters and precipitation patterns. Look for plants with at least three pinkish-colored eyes. Reject any plants that have shriveled or dry crowns.
Find bare-root or container-grown plants that have enough eyes to begin growing and flowering as soon as you plant them. Bare-root plants should be packed in a cool, moist medium and show no sign of mildew; they should be planted immediately, especially if shoots are beginning to grow from the eyes.