Planting Peonies



Once the fall sets in, I focus on all of those plants that favor a fall planting.  Of course the spring flowering bulbs are routinely planted in the fall, but right now I am thinking about peonies. I have had a big love for peonies my entire gardening life. At one point early in my gardener history, I had many hundreds of them planted on my property in rows, like crops. This infatuation with peonies predates my infatuation with design.  I wanted those plants, and had no idea of what to do with them beyond digging a hole and planting. I was young, working, and struggling.  Every extra cent went to plants, and in the fall, to peony roots.  The picture above, one of the few that I still have.  Peonies are just about the easiest perennial on the planet to grow.


Peonies are ordinarily sold as bare root divisions, in the fall.  A cluster of juicy roots with dried tops arrive bathed in barely moist sphagnum moss.  Of particular interest-the number of eyes.  Those red eyed shoots with send forth stems, come spring.  A standard division-3 to 5 eyes.  Double divisions are occasionally available.  A peony asks for just a few things.  Full sun, somewhat alkaline soil, and a planting at the proper depth.  Per the drawing above from the Canadian Peony Society, the eyes should be 2 inches below ground-after they are watered in and the ground settles.  They may refuse to bloom, if the are set to shallow or too deep.  As long lived as peonies are, they resent transplanting.  Smaller divisions transplant more readily.  Larger divisions are a temptation; it will take a number of years to grow a peony division into a robustly shrubby and heavily blooming plant.   Peonies are incredibly long lived perennials-perhaps the longest lived of all perennials, save asparagus.  Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground, come the winter.  In May their thick stems and glossy leaves are topped with an amazing variety of flowers.  Post the bloom season, their strong stems and glossy leaves grace the garden with  a broadleaved presence.


I cannot remember which birthday it was, but my Mom gave me a trip to the National Peony Convention in Mansfield Ohio.  I was in my mid twenties. I had to have been the youngest attendee at the convention by 30 years or better.  I have a distinct memory of a great worry.  What if not enough people my age got interested in growing peonies?  My Mom put that to rest.  Could I have afforded the trip and the lodging and the meals?  No.  Older people who were more established or perhaps retired attended the convention.  There certainly were other gardening Moms taking their kid to specialty plant meetings and exhibitions.

Julia.jpgMy love of gardening has everything to do with Julia.  Along with exposure to good books, manners, and study habits, she saw to my exposure to nature, dirt, and plants.  I can still remember what a happy trip this was.  Rooms full of peony flowers in milk bottles, each specimen more lovely than the last.


On the table tops-the blooms submitted for exhibition.  Under the tables-the rejected flowers.  Perhaps there was a blemished petal, or the form wasn’t perfect.  I could not imagine how it came to be that thousands of peonies from all over the country happened to be at peak bloom on the same day.  I learned that once a peony bud shows color, it can be refrigerated, a plastic bag over it’s head, in the vegetable crisper.  2 days before you want the flower in bloom, bring it out of the crisper, recut the stem, and place it in deep water.  Voila. The year after this show, I put 50 stems in the fridge.  I had no lettuce, celery or radishes, but I had peonies for almost 6 weeks.

photographing-the-peonies.jpgThis was an incredible opportunity to see they flowers from many different cultivars.  There were lectures about herbaceous peonies, and tree peonies.  I saw my first herbaceous/tree peony cross-then an unnamed”Itoh Hybrid”.  The flower was a pale yellow with dark red flares-so exotic.


My scrapbook detailing that visit is old, but still a part of my library.  My peony growing days are long over. That moment in my gardening life when I had hundreds of them lined out is but a memory.  I do not have anyplace to plant them now.  But every fall, I long for them, just the same.


Were I to limit myself to just a few peonies, I would choose these.  Moonstone.  Mrs. FDR.  Miss America.  Kansas.  Sea Shell, Red Charm, Dinner Plate. Princess Margaret, Coral Charm, Kansas.  Do Tell, Krinkled White, Festiva Maxima.  Doreen, Do Tell, Gay Paree, Nick Shaylor.  Charlies White, Pillow Talk, and Bu-Te.  Cytheria, Dinner Plate, Ludovica, and Paula Fay.  The Fawn, Miss America, White Innocence, and Princess Margaret.  I would want to grow White Cap, too. This is not a few peonies-this is a list from a person who has a big love for peonies.  Lucky for me, I am but a short drive from the largest collection of herbaceous peonies in the US.


In the 1920’s, WE Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, donated a collection of 280 varieties to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan.  More than 90 years later, many of his original plants are still healthy and blooming.  An avid collector and grower of peonies himself, he had the kindness to share that with other gardeners.


His grand daughter, Martha G Parfet, recently donated a half a million dollars to honor her grandfather, and establish the WE Upjohn Peony Garden Fund to help with the restoration and the protection of this historic peony garden.


What a treasure-a peony museum.





  1. Heartwarming story on a beautiful fall day.
    Thanks Deborah.

  2. i found your writing very worthwhile, deborah. thank you. i am tranplanting peonies
    tomorrow. how timely, indeed!

  3. Just when I think I’m too bone weary to go back to the garden, one of your blogs pops up in my email. There goes my Sunday.
    Suddenly my nose is filled with the perfume of those peonies, my mind is intrigued by the idea of keeping flowers in bud in the fridge (I was never much of a cook anyway), and my heart swells at the possibilities of my little desert garden.
    I am not moved to garden without a firm thumb on my spine — the rattlers and scorpions and intense sun discourage it. But your blog continues to inspire — and that wonderful look on Julia’s face is telling me to get out there and water, and tend to, and care for, and make my little patch of the world as beautiful as can be.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Terry,Thank you so so much for this letter. Peonies do need a period of vernalization-or cold dormancy. Do they get enough cold where you garden? Deborah

      • Unfortunately Tucson does not get cold enough for much of anything.
        I planted 300 Dutch bulbs in my garden when I first moved here 13 years ago, and last year the FIRST one came up. If nothing else, I’m a patient gardner.
        Our nursery does sell peonies so I’m going to give it a go.
        Again, many thanks for your beautiful and encouraging photos.

        • Deborah Silver says

          Dear Terry, I wonder if you could chill those roots before you plant? I am sure your local nursery or your computer could help you out with this. I myself could not imagine a gardening life without peonies. Thanks for your letter, Deborah

        • Cindareller says

          I lived in Tuscon as an itty bitty kid, and it actually SNOWED that year! That would have been the late 50s. I think our yard was “landscaped” with native dirt, rocks, and some in the subdivision had those horrible awful thorns! Actually those may have been cultivated by the residents who wanted to keep the barefoot ragamuffins off their property. I don’t think there was a green lawn anywhere in that development, let alone flowers. I like the Bay Area much better! Even though we have been promised we’re in for another year of drought. BAH!

  4. I am also fond of peonies. My Dad grew them and I have many of his. They are lined out as you mentioned but they provide some privacy as they are in a raised bed. One of my favorites in my garden bed is Krinkled White. I am really taken by the single white flowers with yellow centers. I have lots of shade and they really are a bright spot.

    Can you tell me how to correctly prune an Itoh peony? It is getting a bit woody near the bottom. I have cut it to the ground in the past.

    I always enjoy reading your blog and learn much.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Priscilla, you are growing Krinkled White in the shade? I am duly impressed. This variety was my Mom’s favorite. As for pruning an Itoh hybrid-I have no clue. I bought 5 or 6 Itoh varieties for my Mom, but never grew them myself. I never pruned my tree peonies, and I cut my herbaceous peonies back to the ground. Surely there must be something on line about this. You have cut it to the ground before? The only reason to change your pruning is if you are not happy with the results. Thanks for writing. Deborah

  5. What a coincedence – I just picked up my iPad to check out my mail, and came across your daily blog. Peonies. Love’em! Just transplanted 20-25 different varieties on the property today. What a beautiful day it was, sunny and crisp.

  6. I also love peonies. We have several in the garden. Most of them were from my mother in law’s garden. They have been growing and blooming here for almost 40 years.

  7. Dear God Deborah…I love this post so much ! Of course, the photo of a 20-something, peony-obsessed DS takes one’s breathe away. It is such a moving reflection. I feel lucky to live in Ann Arbor near the “peony museum”. Every year, I try and have lunch there at least once when they are all in full bloom. It is always a very special spring moment for me. What variety is the dark pink with the dramatically different pale pink pom-pom in the center? I must have that one right away. Thank you for writing, as always.

  8. I just ordered three beauties from Klehm’s in Wisconsin:

    Eternal Salmon

    Chiffon Parfait–KeyY=&h=393&w=393&sz=25&hl=en&start=4&zoom=1&tbnid=Va8bSmKxXMlxnM:&tbnh=124&tbnw=124&ei=B8BtUpmAFcidyQH5zYGQBw&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dpeony%2BChiffon%2BParfait%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26sa%3DX%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26hl%3Den%26tbm%3Disch&itbs=1&sa=X&ved=0CDIQrQMwAw

    White Cap (I figured it out !),%26pagetype%3Dplantdetails%26plant_name%3D%27White%2520Cap%27&usg=__PS-q-GkGOzZBZ23F8vL_nMD2x_g=&h=327&w=400&sz=29&hl=en&start=5&zoom=1&tbnid=7EiWMcZQJZCYuM:&tbnh=101&tbnw=124&ei=PsBtUqqGGem4yAGZ9IGQCA&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dpeony%2Bwhite%2Bcap%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26sa%3DX%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26hl%3Den%26tbm%3Disch&itbs=1&sa=X&ved=0CDQQrQMwBA

    • Deborah Silver says

      Michael, love that White Cap! In peach, my favorite is Coral Charm. (There is a great picture at A and D Nursery) I’d like to attend the peony lunch, if I may! Deborah

  9. Deborah, Your blog has been a delight and an inspiration! Query..I live in Minnesota..I have a boxwood in a 12 inch pot..can I leave it out this winter or should I bring it to a cooler room in the basement and let it go dormant with sparodic water? I am also trying this with a cut-back Mandevilla? Thanks for your help. T

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Terry, the basement would be too warm for the boxwood-what about the garage? Maybe the basement would be fine for the mandevillea-give it a try. Thanks, Deborah

  10. I love everything about this post, I too really appreciate peonies. They remind me of my grandmother who instilled a love of gardening in me. Thanks for taking time to share pictures of your early peony collection and your Mom – your blog is fantastic and many thanks for sharing so many insights!

  11. Hi Deborah. I love peonies, too! And you’re right, they’re really easy to grow. I wish the flowers lasted longer in my garden, but I still love the look and fragrance. I have a lot of the common pink and white varieties, but I did get a yellow one (I am a wh@re for yellow peonies) finally last year. It hasn’t bloomed yet…but I’m excited. I’m trying to show discipline by just getting more of the same cultivars I already have. So far, my favorite in my limited collection is bowl of beauty. I don’t plan to get any new pink cultivars, but there is an expensive yellow I’ve had my eye on for years. Maybe one day I’ll scrape up enough $$ to buy it.

  12. Cara Kazanowski says

    I was touched by you & your mom’s trip to the Peony Convention. My mom, who’s 90 years old, and I also have traveled together. While driving from Key Largo to Key West, we detoured off Hwy 1 to visit nurseries selling Polyscias Aralias, which she collected. In NYC, we visited the New York Botanical Gardens.

  13. Ah! Yes. I share your deep love of peonies, and live 45 min from Mansfield. Peonies are the very first thing I planted when I was six years old. I can also relate to being the youngest member in gardening events. Haha when I went through master gardener training I was 20 and I think the next youngest was 53. What a gift to a young gardener, new friends with big established gardens full of cuttings, divisions, and seedlings. Gardening really is, in many ways, a waiting game when things always should have been planted yesterday…and a young start is a blessing. Despite the frustration of being way poorer than all your gardening friends 🙂

  14. Cindareller says

    A note about refrigerating the peonies in-bud. Keep in mind if you store apples (or onions, I think?) in the fridge, they may affect your blooms. Not sure if it would spoil them altogether, or just make them bloom in spite of the cold. I forget the name of the gas apples give off, but it might be what makes my lettuce go by so fast. Bananas will ripen fast if there’s a bowl of apples anywhere in the room, I’ve found. But then, no matter that I get bananas in a variety of readiness– almost ripe to hard and green, it seems they all come “ripe” on the same day!

    Oh, and Deborah, I think “Do Tell” must be your FAVORITE, as you listed it twice!

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