Peonies are some of the most beautiful perennial flowers you can grow in your garden. Known for their lush, full blooms in shades of pink, red, white, and yellow, peonies make a stunning statement in borders, beds, and containers. Planting peony bulbs in spring is a crucial step towards ensuring the health and performance of your peonies. While peonies are low maintenance once established, proper care during planting and in the weeks following is necessary to ensure that the bulbs take root and grow strong, healthy plants.
Follow this guide to learn tips and best practices for selecting, planting, and caring for peony bulbs in springtime. With the right approach, you’ll enjoy vibrant peony flowers for years.
Selecting Peony Bulbs
When selecting peony bulbs to plant in spring, choose large, firm bulbs free of mold, rot, or other defects. Bulbs should be plump and heavy for their size. The best time to purchase peony bulbs is in the fall. However, you’ll still find quality bulbs from reputable suppliers in early spring.
Look for peony bulbs that are approximately 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Smaller bulbs may take longer to establish and produce flowers. Prioritize purchasing species peonies like Paeonia lactiflora over hybrids, as species types tend to be hardier.
If you live in an area with cold winters, choose peony bulbs rated for your USDA Hardiness Zone. Most peonies thrive in Zones 3-8. Tree peonies perform best in Zones 6-9. You can find the hardiness zone on the packaging or bulb description.
When selecting your peony bulb variety, keep in mind:
- Early Bloomers: Festiva Maxima, Duchess de Nemours, Karl Rosenfeld
- Midseason Bloomers: Red Charm, Coral Charm, Bartzella
- Late Bloomers: Sarah Bernhardt, Many Moons, Bowl of Beauty
Choosing a mix of early, mid, and late-blooming cultivars will give you peonies flowering from spring through early summer.
When to Plant Peony Bulbs
Spring is the ideal season for planting peony bulbs in most temperate regions. The best time to plant is when the ground can be worked in early spring.
Aim to plant your peony bulbs:
- In cold climates: 4-6 weeks before the last expected frost date
- In warm climates: In late February or March
- In hot climates: In January or February
Planting in early spring establishes roots before hot summer weather arrives. It also enables the plant to become dormant after flowering during the natural winter cycle.
You can also plant peony bulbs in the fall, from September through early November—however, spring planting results in faster growth and more flowers in the first season.
Where to Plant Peony Bulbs
When choosing a spot to plant your peony bulbs, look for these ideal conditions:
- Sun: At least 6 hours of direct sun daily
- Soil: Rich, well-draining soil with a neutral pH around 6.5 to 7.0
- Spacing: 3-4 feet between plants for good air circulation
- Site: Avoid planting under trees or eaves where the roots may get too wet
Full sun is crucial for abundant blooming and preventing fungal diseases. Peonies planted in too much shade will produce fewer flowers and likely succumb to issues like botrytis blight.
Vibrant soil can cause peony plants to focus energy on foliage growth rather than blooms. Improve average garden soil by mixing in compost or well-rotted manure before planting.
Leave ample space between plants to allow for good air circulation. Crowding can increase humidity and the risk of fungal problems.
Avoid planting peonies in sites that collect water, like in low spots or under the dripline from roofs. Excess moisture around the roots leads to rot.
How to Plant Peony Bulbs
Follow this step-by-step guide for properly planting bare-root peony bulbs in spring:
- Peony bulbs
- Shovel or trowel
- Compost, manure, or other organic matter (optional)
- Bone meal or bulb fertilizer (optional)
Prepare the Planting Bed
Dig a planting bed to a depth of 12-18 inches. If desired, loosen the soil and mix in 1 to 2 inches of compost or manure.
Peonies thrive in nutrient-rich soil. While not mandatory, incorporating compost or manure provides a boost.
Dig Holes & Amend Soil
Dig a hole for each bulb that’s roughly twice as deep and double as wide as the bulb’s size. For a 2-3 inch bulb, aim for a 6-inch deep by 6-inch wide hole.
Mix a couple of handfuls of bone meal or bulb fertilizer into the soil removed from each hole. This provides phosphorus for root development and blooming.
Place Bulbs & Backfill
Place each bulb in its hole with the pink bud side facing up. The roots should face down.
Aim to have the bulb top sit about 1-2 inches below soil level. This gives the roots room to establish before sprouting leaves reach the surface.
Backfill the holes with the amended soil, firming the ground gently around each bulb. Avoid packing too tightly.
As a top dressing, consider sprinkling a thin layer of compost or manure over the planted area. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients.
Water the peony bulbs well after planting. This removes any air pockets in the soil and initiates growth.
Proper watering the first spring is vital for a healthy start. Plan to keep the soil moist but not saturated as growth gets underway.
Caring for Peonies in Spring
Caring for newly planted peony bulbs in spring involves keeping weeds clear, moisture consistent, and pest control. Follow these tips:
- Weed diligently – Remove weeds as they sprout to prevent competition for water and nutrients—mulch after planting to deter weeds.
- Water weekly – Supply around 1 inch of water weekly if rain is lacking. Avoid oversaturating the soil.
- Stake stems (optional) – As shoots grow, staking prevents flopping and damage in wind or heavy rain.
- Watch for pests – Handpick early signs of peony weevils, botrytis, or other issues.
- Fertilize lightly – Apply a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer or compost tea monthly to nurture growth.
With attentive spring care, peony roots will grow 1-3 feet deep and store energy to fuel flowering for years.
Troubleshooting Issues With Peonies
Being attentive to peonies as they establish in spring will help avoid most problems. But if issues arise, here are some common challenges and solutions:
- Few or no flowers: This can indicate too much shade, overfertilizing, deep planting, or damage from late frosts or freezes.
- Foliage wilts or dies back: Typically caused by dry soil. Water peonies weekly if rainfall is less than 1 inch.
- Leaves turning black (botrytis blight): A fungal issue worsened by wet conditions. Improve drainage and avoid overhead watering. Remove and destroy affected foliage.
- Chewing damage on buds: This could be caused by peony weevils. Handpick adults and larvae. Apply insecticidal soap as a deterrent.
- Failure to emerge in spring Usually indicates bulb death from rot or freezing. Gently dig up the bulb and assess. Replace if damaged or decayed.
With proper selection, planting, and care, issues are uncommon. Pay close attention in the first season. You’ll likely enjoy thriving peonies for years.
Ongoing Care for Established Peonies
Once peony roots are established after the first one to two seasons, plants become pretty hardy, and care is minimal. Follow these tips to keep them healthy long-term:
Prune back peony stems to about 3-4 inches above ground level each fall. This prevents overwintering disease issues. Cut off any damaged or diseased growth as well.
In spring, trim off any remaining dead foliage to make room for new growth.
When growth resumes, apply a balanced fertilizer or compost tea once in early spring. Avoid overfertilizing established plants, as excess nitrogen causes floppy growth and fewer blooms.
Work a couple of inches of compost every 3-4 years into the soil around peonies in early spring to replenish nutrients.
Through meshes, stems lengthen to prevent the flopping of large blooms. Staking established peonies keeps the heavy flowers upright and avoids damage.
Give peonies about 1-2 inches of water weekly if rainfall is insufficient. Avoid wetting foliage, as this spreads disease.
Provide extra water during flowering and as buds form for the entire bloom.
Be vigilant for signs of peony weevils, botrytis, powdery mildew, and other peony problems. Remove affected parts immediately and treat them organically if needed.
Maintain good garden sanitation by cleaning up spent blooms and fallen leaves—space plants properly for airflow.
Established peony plants will thrive for decades with attentive care, providing gorgeous late-spring blooms.
Timeline: What to Expect the First Year
If you’re planting peony bulbs for the first time, anticipating the stages of growth will help ensure success:
- Early spring: Plant peony bulbs 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Keep soil moist but not saturated as roots establish.
- April: Leaves will emerge as shoots sprout from the planted bulbs. Support stems as they lengthen.
- May: Flower buds will swell and open into blooms late in the month. Add supports to keep flowers upright on stems.
- June: Peonies will be in peak bloom if planted correctly. Deadhead spent blooms. Monitor for pests or diseases.
- July: Foliage will remain green during summer—water during dry spells.
- Fall: Cut back stems to 3-4 inches above ground in late fall before frost.
- Winter: Plants become dormant. Mulch after the ground freezes to insulate roots if desired.
The first year’s blooming may be modest, but you’ll be rewarded with a healthy, established plant ready to put on a fabulous floral display each subsequent spring.
Enjoying Peonies All Season Long
While peonies are prized for their sumptuous spring blooms, you can enjoy these plants beyond the flowering season:
- Cut blooms for bouquets – Peonies make exceptional cut flowers. Cut stems as blooms open early in the day. Immerse immediately in warm water and arrange for extended vase life.
- Dry peony flowers – Hang peony blooms upside down in a dark, dry location. Use dried flowers in arrangements and crafts.
- Make peony tea – Both the flowers and leaves have mild, pleasant flavors perfect for herbal tea: dry parts and store to brew fresh tea anytime.
- Press peonies – Preserve peonies forever using flower pressing techniques. Frame-pressed flowers from your garden for keepsake art.
- Share the bounty – Give prized peony roots and bulbs to fellow gardeners. Dig up and divide congested plants in fall to spread beauty.
With proper selection, planting, and care, peonies will bring their lush, elegant blooms to your garden year after year. If you’re planning on planting peony bulbs in spring, make sure to choose a well-draining location with plenty of sunlight. Follow these tips for success with these classic perennials.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long do peonies take to bloom?
A: Most peonies mature for 3-5 years and produce abundant blooms. You may get some flowers the first spring after planting, but full flowering typically doesn’t occur until the 3rd or 4th year as the roots are established. Be patient for peonies to hit their stride.
Q: When should peonies be divided?
A: The best time to divide congested peony roots is after plants become dormant in the fall. Dig up all clumps carefully in September or October. Use a sharp knife or garden fork to cut the root mass into divisions with 3-5 eyes each. Replant divisions right away at the proper depth.
Q: What causes peonies not to bloom?
A: Several factors can lead to no blooms on peonies, including too much shade, overfertilization, deep planting, damage from late frosts, and overly dense planting. Ensure plants get at least 6 hours of direct sun. Check planting depth, amend soil as needed, and give plants space to promote flowering.
Q: Do ants on peonies hurt the plant?
A: Ants are attracted to the nectar on peony buds. Their presence is harmless, and some gardeners view ants on peonies as a sign of health. You can discourage ants by placing sticky barriers on plant stems close to the ground if desired. Wiping buds with a damp cloth also removes nectar that attracts them.
Q: Are peonies deer resistant?
A: Deer tend to avoid peonies, likely due to their strong fragrance and bitter-tasting foliage and buds. Planting peonies is an excellent choice if deer are a problem in your garden. Take care not to over-fertilize, as excess nitrogen makes plants more prone to browsing.
With clouds of lush, colorful blooms in late spring, peonies are prized garden perennials. Planting peony bulbs in spring at the proper depth and time and providing attentive care as growth begins are crucial steps to successfully establishing these heirloom flowers in your landscape. By selecting appropriate varieties that suit your region’s climate and soil conditions, you can enjoy the beauty of peonies for years to come.
Beyond the basics, consider adding unusual spring-planted bulbs to your garden for added interest. Focus on giving your peonies a sunny, well-drained site, consistent moisture, and protection from frost and pests during the first year. Once roots are established, peonies require minimal care, ensuring outstanding floral displays year after year, alongside your unique bulb selections.
This helpful guide gives you all the information needed to choose, plant confidently, and tend peonies for your garden. Before long, you’ll enjoy their beautifully bountiful blooms as the first sign of spring’s return.