Of all the wonderful different types of flowering plants that I simply have to have in my garden, peonies are always at the top of the list.  They are a regal flower that feels very formal yet still “cottage garden-ish” to me. You can usually find them gracing the beds of older gardens in the neighborhood or in mass plantings, if you happen to live near a palatial estate. I use them as a “bridge bloomer”, filling the gap between the early spring blooms of Candy Tuft and Primroses and the long parade of summer perennials that continue into the fall. No garden should be without a clump of two of peonies.

Peonies come in three basic forms and the most common is herbaceous peonies. These are the ones that sprout up in the spring, bloom for 3 to 4 weeks, keep their attractive foliage throughout the summer, and then go dormant in the winter. They rarely need dividing and can live for decades with very little care other than full sun, good drainage, and a seasonal application of an all-purpose organic fertilizer (they do appreciate some lime as well). The one single tip for success is to not plant them too deeply.  One plant can sport 20 to 30 blooms with individual flowers as large as 4 to 6 inches across and they make a great cut flower. As a bonus, many varieties have fragrance too. Herbaceous peonies do have the nasty habit of wanting to flop, so installing “grow through rings” in early spring as the new growth emerges or corralling them later with stakes and twine is a must. Colors range from white to pink, red, purple, bicolors, and of course doubles and singles. 

In addition to herbaceous peonies, there are also tree peonies, which aren’t actually trees but are more like a woody shrub. They have flowers that come in colors of yellow, orange, dark purple (in addition to red, pink and white) and can reach 9 to 12 inches in size. The plant itself grows to a 4’ by 4’ woody shrub lacking in form and equally as hard to work into your landscape arrangement, but the incredible flowers make it all worthwhile. The same cultural requirements for herbaceous peonies apply, with the exception that tree peonies need to be planted around 4 inches deeper so roots can form on the stems.  Since these peonies are grafted onto herbaceous peony rootstocks, make sure you keep suckers pruned off so they won’t compete.

The third type of peony on the market is a hybrid cross between the above two varieties and I can tell you with confidence that it carries the best traits of both of them.Named after the man who developed them, Itoh peonies grow 2 to 3 feet tall with sturdy stems that do not need any staking (this is a huge benefit, believe me) and flowers that are 6 to 9 inches across with a good range of colors.The plants develop a woody nature by the end of the season, but are actually herbaceous and need to be cut all the way to the ground before spring.  

Peonies are a long-term investment. New plants will usually take 2 to 3 years before they start blooming prolifically unless you spring for a more mature plant. Remember that while they may be slow to get established, they will live for years in the garden with very little fussing needed. While tree peonies are hard to find and not always in stock, in our nursery we typically carry over a dozen different flavors of the herbaceous types and about half that many of the Itoh type.  No matter which type of peony you choose, you are bound to have large beautiful blooms in your garden.  Stay safe and keep on gardening!

 Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com.

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