Peonies 101: How to Grow Herbaceous Peony Plants

Written by Hannah Miller. Reviewed and Fact Checked by Elizabeth Smith. Published to Spring Plants. Updated: 17th February 2023.

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Flamboyant, sumptuous, bold. These are just three of many words I could use to describe peonies which are, in my opinion, one of the best late spring/early summer plants for beginners and competent gardeners alike.

There are three types of peony to consider:

  1. Peony trees: These are woody and live up to 90 years.
  2. Herbaceous peonies: Are more fragile and die back to ground level each year, then reappear the following spring.
  3. Intersectional peonies: These are a hybrid of the two but are less common.

All three peonies produce large blooms, which make perfect cut flowers.

Most of my experience is with herbaceous peonies, the most popular variety.

Size

Herbaceous peonies grow to:

Height: Up to 1m (3′)

Width: Up to 1m (3′)

Type

Type

Deciduous: Dies down to ground level in the winter

Growth icon

Growth

Herbaceous peonies reach maturity after three to five years and regrow from their roots each spring

Difficulty

Moderately difficult to grow and maintain

Native

China, Siberia

Location

Sheltered from the wind in a spot with good air circulation and in rich but well-drained soil

Sunlight

The more sunlight, the more flowers you can expect so plant in full sun or in a spot that gets at least 8 hours per day

Hardiness

US zone 3-8 and hardy in all parts of the UK

Water & Feed

Water deeply once a week in the summer but never let them sit in soggy soil. In fertile soil, there is no need to top up with fertiliser; otherwise, add organic matter or slow-release fertiliser

Companions

Hydrangea, azaleas, iris, rhododendron, lilac, alliums

Planting

Plant when the soil is warm in autumn or spring

Flowering

Typically in May and June but sometimes into July as well

A pair of red and pink peony blooms
White, red and pink peony flowers

Peony Growing Guide: Answers to Common Questions

How and When are Peonies Sold?

Garden centres sell peonies as bare-root plants from late autumn into early spring or as established plants in late spring/early summer.

I’ve always purchased bare-root plants and have had great results each time. Although, if you’ve missed the best planting time, go for established plants which are often sold in pots in garden centres.

Where is the best location for peonies?

Peonies prefer a sunny spot but will tolerate light shade, although, in my garden, I noticed that they produced much smaller blooms when I grew them in the shade.

I’ve found that they perform best when given some space and air circulation but they should be grown in a relatively sheltered spot away from strong winds, which could snap the stems.

How should the soil be prepared?

They prefer fertile soil that’s free draining, so dig in grit and/organic matter to improve the ground conditions if required.

The bare roots shouldn’t be overwatered – this is a common cause of root rot, although I’ve never experienced this in my garden.

I’ve lost a few peonies over the years by planting them too deeply – peonies may not flower if planted too far into the soil. From what I’ve learnt, the crown should be no more than an inch below ground level, any lower, and it may not flower or may not even grow at all.

Do peonies require lots of water or fertiliser?

I dig in compost or rotted manure once a year to improve the soil but I’ve always been careful not to overwater them as peonies are sensitive to boggy soil conditions. I’ve never felt the need to dose them up with fertilisers.

How tall and wide will peonies grow?

The herbaceous peonies in my garden usually grow to just under 1m tall and around 0.8m wide (3′ x 2.6′).

Should peonies be pruned and deadheaded, and if so, how and when?

I’ve always deadheaded my peonies after the blooms have faded but I leave the foliage in place until it’s faded and pulls away easily. So far, my peonies have bounced back consistently.

Do peonies suffer from any pests and diseases?

The most common disease affecting peonies is powdery mildew on the leaves, but this can be remedied by growing the plant in a spot with good circulation and plenty of sunlight. I have experienced this myself as I tend to pack plants aggressively in my garden.

My best practice for dealing with powdery mildew is to remove the affected leaves rather than letting them settle on the soil, I also create some space between the plants to aid with circulation.

Peony wilt is a similar fungal infection with no known cure; find out more about this on the RHS website.

Slugs and snails may attack young shoots but in my garden, they’ve generally backed off once the plant has matured.

Slug repellants may be used for a month or two but I don’t use them every week.

Root worms may attack the roots, but beyond this, peonies are generally pest resistant and beyond a bit of powdery mildew, I’ve not had any issues worth reporting.

When do peonies bloom and how long for?

My herbaceous peonies bloom in late early May and some into early June.

Peonies are infamous for their short flowering period, often no more than 10 days, but this depends on the climate and the amount of and intensity of the rain, which in my garden, turned the blooms slushy.

Can peonies be propagated?

I’ve found that the best way to propagate peonies is by root division in the autumn, just after the plant has been pruned to ground level.

I’ve managed to increase the numbers of peonies I have by root division, so just follow these steps if you want to grow more plants:

  • Wait until autumn and prune off the stems to a few inches above ground level.
  • Carefully dig up the rootball, which in my garden is usually large and deep.
  • Wash the soil from the roots with a hose.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut off root sections making sure each has a minimum of three buds and plenty of root material.
  • Replant straight away in the garden, I usually add in some compost or other organic matter to help the roots get going.

Are peonies toxic or harmful to humans and pets?

All parts of the peony are toxic to pets and in larger quantities, to humans as well.

Are peonies beneficial to wildlife?

Peony flowers attract ants, but they don’t cause any harm to the plant.

Peonies attract bees and I have seen them on the plants in my garden, but according to this forum chat, bees usually prefer other plants, so they may not be the best plant for pollinators.

Can peonies be grown in pots?

The roots of peonies can grow very large and deep so I don’t think they will be well suited to small or medium-sized pots.

Even peonies grown in larger containers will need to be lifted after a few years and replanted.

Based on my experience and from what I’ve seen over the years, yes peonies can be grown in pots but for no more than a few years.

PEONY COLLECTION "SARAH BERNHARDT",DUCHESSE DE NEMOURS & "KARL ROSENFELD" BARE ROOT PLANTS PERENNIAL
Thompson & Morgan Peony Hardy Perennial Bare Root Plant, Ideal for Borders, Cottage Gardens & Cut Flowers, Easy to Grow, Pink Flowers, 1 x Peony Karl Rosenfield Bare Root Plant
PEONY COLLECTION "SARAH BERNHARDT",DUCHESSE DE NEMOURS & "KARL ROSENFELD" BARE ROOT PLANTS PERENNIAL
Thompson & Morgan Peony Hardy Perennial Bare Root Plant, Ideal for Borders, Cottage Gardens & Cut Flowers, Easy to Grow, Pink Flowers, 1 x Peony Karl Rosenfield Bare Root Plant
PEONY COLLECTION "SARAH BERNHARDT",DUCHESSE DE NEMOURS & "KARL ROSENFELD" BARE ROOT PLANTS PERENNIAL
PEONY COLLECTION "SARAH BERNHARDT",DUCHESSE DE NEMOURS & "KARL ROSENFELD" BARE ROOT PLANTS PERENNIAL
Thompson & Morgan Peony Hardy Perennial Bare Root Plant, Ideal for Borders, Cottage Gardens & Cut Flowers, Easy to Grow, Pink Flowers, 1 x Peony Karl Rosenfield Bare Root Plant
Thompson & Morgan Peony Hardy Perennial Bare Root Plant, Ideal for Borders, Cottage Gardens & Cut Flowers, Easy to Grow, Pink Flowers, 1 x Peony Karl Rosenfield Bare Root Plant

Growing Peonies: 10 key Points

Despite my experience growing peonies, I asked qualified horticulturist Elizabeth Smith to provide us with 10 key tips that anyone growing peonies will find helpful:

  1. My peonies took a few years before they bloomed but it is possible to buy strong, large bare roots which are established enough to bloom in the first year.
  2. Never plant peonies in soggy soil where water pools, I’ve seen them fail in such conditions.
  3. Add grit and organic matter to improve the soil conditions.
  4. Don’t overwater the bare roots after planting; they dislike excess moisture and will do just fine in well-drained soil.
  5. Protect peonies from strong winds by locating them in a sheltered spot or using supports, stakes or a frame. The stems of peonies are weak and liable to break, so care should be taken to protect them.
  6. There’s no need to douse peonies with fertiliser every week, top up the soil with some organic matter once a year or dig in a slow-release feed once a year, in the spring.
  7. Watch out for leaf mildew or other signs of disease on the leaves. If possible, aid air circulation, avoid overhead watering and clear away fallen leaves promptly.
  8. Deadhead after flowering, but leave the foliage in place until well into autumn if possible.
  9. Prune to a few inches above ground level in late autumn, around the time of the first frosts.
  10. Prune, dig up, divide and replant to propagate if required. This is best done in the autumn, but from my experience, it may take a year or two before the divided plants fully bloom.

Recommended Peony Plant Varieties

There are dozens of peonies to choose from, but here are my favourites which I’ve experimented with over the years:

Sarah Bernhardt Peony is a popular variety growing to 1m and produces large fragrant double blooms. A reliable bloomer that puts on a show in June and sometimes into July.

Bowl of Beauty is another popular peony, growing to 90cm and produces pink cupped blooms up to 25cm. I particularly love the powerful fragrance of this variety too.

Chocolate Soldier is an upright, clump-forming peony delivering dark red/maroon flowers complimenting the dark green foliage.

Peony Companion Plants

I’ve been mixing and experimenting with different plants over the years and from I know, I think these plants would make for great peony companions:

Common Peony Plant Problems

Peony plants are tough and require little care and attention once established if grown in suitable conditions, and I’ve had few notable issues with mine.

However, as with any plant, there are a few potential problems:

1) Peonies Not Flowering

This is usually caused by one of the following:

  1. The plant is still young and isn’t mature enough to produce blooms. Peonies need up to three years of growth before they can bloom, hence why gardeners should buy from reliable growers. I’ve purchased bare roots that took a couple of years to produce blooms and also some that flowered the following year.
  2. Too much shade – established peonies should bloom profusely; if they don’t, it could be due to a lack of sunlight, an issue I’ve experienced.
  3. Too much water – peonies dislike soggy soil and may refuse to bloom if grown in wet soil.

2) Ants on Peonies

This is normal, the ants are attracted to the flowers, and they actually help to open them, after which they will disappear. There is no need to take any action, and I’ve never seen the ants cause harm.

3) Grey, Mouldy Stems and Weak Leaves

Based on my experience, this is most likely due to one or more of the following:

  • Fungal disease.
  • Overhead watering.
  • Lack of air circulation.
  • Diseased leaves are not being cleared away.
  • Poor sanitation of garden tools, including secateurs, spades etc.

More Photos

Cream peony flower closeup
Pink and purple peony blooms
Red and orange blooms on a peony
Bright red peony bloom

Our Expertise: Backed by a Qualified Horticulturist

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This guide was reviewed and fact-checked by qualified horticulturist Elizabeth Smith.

Explore: Elizabeth's profile and qualifications.

Meet The Author: Hannah Miller

Hannah is a keen gardener who grows organic fruit and vegetables in her Surrey garden and is moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle. 

She is also the proud grower of a dahlia and herb garden.

Hannah worked for the NHS for 12 years but also has a level 3 qualification in horticulture and is currently studying for her level 4.

More About Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller

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