Fall: The Best Time to Plant Peonies

Marc Montefusco
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Peonies -- both the more common herbaceous types and the tree peonies – are best planted in fall, just about the time they go dormant. This allows them to make root growth all through the winter. Peony roots are large and fleshy, and serve (like many plant root systems) to store energy for vigorous spring growth.

In fact, right now is a great time to order peonies and prepare their beds. Many suppliers begin digging peonies at this time of year and ship them "bare root" for fall planting. Consult some of the garden magazines for suppliers who specialize in mail-order peonies, or take advantage of the end-of-season sales at local nurseries who still have plants.

Both tree and herbaceous peonies like rich, well-drained, and deep soil, although they are tough and adaptable plants that can survive almost anywhere. When I say deep, I mean at least 18" to two or three feet, if possible.

Remember that peonies can survive for decades (even centuries) and really don’t like being moved once they’re established. Better do the work up front now! They can take some shade, and light shade is even preferable in the afternoon, to extend the life of the magnificent spring blossoms.

Peony plants are generally priced by the rarity of the cultivar and the age of the plant – most commercial plants have three or more "eyes" or growing points. These eyes should be placed just below the soil surface when planting – about an inch is generally considered perfect.

Improper planting depth is often given as the reason for poor flowering, but don’t be too hasty. Peonies require several years to really hit their stride. You’ve probably heard this old saw, but it is accurate regarding peonies: "The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps." May your peonies leap sooner rather than later.

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