Monday, September 26, 2016

How not to Transplant a Peony

I've worked my shovel in a wide circle around the peony, and the root ball feels as though it has begun to give, so I pry down gently on the shovel. I shift position a few more times and pry down again. There seems to be a gradual upward movement...and then there is a horrible "crrrack". 

Have you ever heard the sound that ice on a frozen lake makes when it shifts and then cracks? This noise was just as ominous!

"That can't be good," I say to myself. This is the third peony I've attempted to move this afternoon, but the others were small and things went well. This last peony, on the other hand, was at least three years old. When I bought it I had no idea where I wanted to place it in the garden, so I had unceremoniously dumped it in my nursery bed. 

Despite the lack of thought, I gave to its placement, the peony thrived and grew into shrub-like proportions. This spring the fragrance of the fluffy white blooms was just lovely. 

I should have moved it last fall, but life somehow got in the way. Now I was paying for the delay. 

The white peony flowers blooming last spring.

When I finally unearthed the full root ball, the extent of the damage was readily apparent. More than a few of the large, carrot-like roots had snapped in two.

"I bet this is why peonies have a reputation for not liking to be moved," I think feeling discouraged. With their deep root system, it's certainly a bit of struggle to transplant a mature peony without causing some damage.

One of my peonies. Sorry, don't know the specific cultivar.

Fall is the perfect season to be thinking about peonies. It's not only a great time to move them (if you dare), it's also a great time to plant them. 

Why is fall better than spring? 

Peonies bloom early in the gardening season, so planting them in spring may shock them out of flowering that year. The weather in fall is cooler and rain is generally more plentiful minimizing the stress of planting or transplanting them. 

Peonies at the front of our house.

Peonies in my own garden

Peonies in my own garden

A Few Peony Basics:

• Peonies can take a few years to develop and mature, but a gardener's patience is rewarded with a long-lived plant. Some peonies have been known to live for as much as a hundred years!

• Peonies like full sun (a minimum of 6 hrs of sun) and a bit of shelter from the wind. Though they are fairly adaptable, they prefer rich, well-drained soil that has a neutral pH.

• Unlike many other perennials, peonies don't need to be routinely divided.

• Peonies make wonderful cut flowers.

Peony 'Miss America' at the Oshawa Botanical Gardens.

Types of Peonies:

Herbaceous peonies appear in spring and die back to the ground in late fall. Lactiflora is the species parent found in most nurseries. Lactiflora peonies can be recognized by the presence of side buds. Hybrid peonies, which are a cross of two species parents, produce only one bloom per stem.

Itoh or Intersectional peonies are a cross between a herbaceous peony and a tree peony. These peonies have the leaf form of tree peonies on a rounded plant that dies back to the ground in winter.

Tree Peonies are actually a woody shrub that can reach 4-7 feet in height and 4-5 feet wide. They grow slowly and it may take 5-10 years for them to reach their mature size. 

An ideal spot for a tree peony would be a sheltered location. They like morning sun and a little bit of dappled shade during the hottest hours of the day. Find more information on Tree Peonies in this blog post.

A bouquet of my peonies.

How to plant a Bare-root Peony:

Peonies are easy to grow provided you get them off to a good start. Peonies planted in the fall should be in the ground and settled before the first frost (September or October depending on your garden's zone). Healthy peony roots have three to five reddish-green eyes, which are the starting points of next spring's growth. This crown of buds should be no more than two inches below the surface of the soil. If you plant them too deeply, your peony may stubbornly refuse to bloom for several years.

As I've discovered, peonies aren't easy to move, so choose your location carefully. A mature herbaceous peony is like a small shrub ( 2.5' tall by 3' wide is the average), so keep that in mind and give it lots of room to grow.

To plant your peony, dig a hole that is generous enough to accommodate your bare-root plant. Before you backfill the hole enrich sandy or clay soils with some compost and/or a cup of bone meal.

Peony 'Burning Bright' from the Oshawa Botanical Gardens

Peony removed from its pot. 
This is Peony 'Claire de Lune' which is a single cream-colored peony.

How to plant a Potted Peony:

Potted peonies can usually be found at your local nursery for planting in spring and early summer. I have too many peonies as it is, but that didn't stop me from buying this Paeonia 'Claire de Lune' when I saw it last spring. It's a single, cream-colored peony.

Dig a planting hole that is a least twice the size of the pot in width and depth. Place some dirt back in the bottom of the hole. This will allow your peony's roots to grow out into loose soil. Take your peony out of its pot and place it in the planting hole. 

Generally, the top of the soil in the potted plant should be level with the top of the soil in the planting hole. In this case, my "Claire de Lune' peony was sitting high in its nursery pot with some of the root and a few new buds or "eyes" exposed. This crown of buds should actually be two inches below the surface of the soil, so I had to make adjustments when I planted my peony. It is recommended to amend your planting soil with some compost and a handful of bonemeal when you backfill.

Peony 'Firebelle' at the Oshawa Botanical Gardens.

Once established peonies are fairly drought tolerantbut during the first growing season, it is important not to let your peony get too dry. When you notice your newly planted peony could use some moisture, water it deeply. Try to avoid getting water on the foliage as it will encourage fungus.

Peonies don't need a lot of pampering, but they do benefit from regular applications of fertilizer and a top dressing of mulch.

This fall powdery mildew is a problem on my peonies, which have become 
stressed by the really dry summer.

Pests and Diseases:
If any peony stems collapse or spots appear on the foliage, remove the affected leaves to help stop the spread of the infection. 

Fungal spores can overwinter on old foliage, so a fall cleanup of old peony foliage is a good practice to adopt.

Peonies and Ants:

Ants are attracted to the nectar on peony buds, but they don't harm the flowers. If you are worried about bringing ants into the house along with your cut flowers, you can always pick the flowers just before the buds open (optimum timing: the buds should be showing some color and should be soft when given a gentle squeeze).

When I bring flowers into the house I usually submerge my peonies in a bucket of cold water first and rinse any ants off.

Peonies in a private garden in Caledon, ON (see more of this garden here)

Care in Spring:

Many traditional peonies have big heavy flowers with stems that are too weak to support them. Before the foliage fully emerges in the spring, place a three-legged metal ring into position to help the support the flowers that will come later. The foliage will grow up through the ring and should conceal the support.

If you mulch your garden in the spring, do not put mulch over the crown. Mulching around the plant, however, will control weeds and will help the soil retain moisture.

Care in Fall:

In September, cut the foliage to the ground and remove it to prevent the spread of any disease or fungus. Compost the leaves if they are disease-free.

Blossom Hill Nursery

Peony Cultivars: There are so many to choose from!

A couple of years ago I visited Blossom Hill Nursery, which specializes in growing peonies. To get an idea of the range of cultivars available, visit these posts: Blossom Hill Nursery, Part 1, Blossom Hill Nursery, Part 2.

Peonies at the Oshawa Botanical Garden.

Peony 'Bright Knight' at the Oshawa Botanical Garden.

Peonies at the Oshawa Botanical Garden.

Companion Plants:

Peonies are often grown together in the same way that hybrid tea roses are grouped into traditional flowerbeds. Peonies certainly look nice clustered together and after they finish flowering, the foliage continues to hold up fairly well through the rest of growing season. There is only one drawback to this type of planting scheme: peonies bloom for such a brief period of time and then you are left with a rather nondescript expanse of green for the rest of the summer.

I much prefer it when peonies are mixed in with other perennials. Here are just a few ideas to get you inspired:

Peonies + Catmint, Nepeta at the Toronto Botanical Garden

Peonies + Catmint, Nepeta at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Blue star, Amsonia 'Blue Ice' looks terrific sitting in front of white or pink peonies.

Peonies + perennial Salvia at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt' + purple Alliums at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Peonies and roses from my garden.

Unfortunately, it takes at least a growing season for the white peony I transplanted to recover, but I feel confident that it will eventually flower again. Peonies may have soft, pretty flowers, but they are very tough resilient perennials.


  1. Oh how I love peonies! I have that no-name cultivar and I love it, wish I knew what it was!!! I used to have 8 varieties at my last house, I only brought one with me and the garden here had the white peonies with a red stripe accent (can't for the life of me remember the name right now - something Lemoine?? ). Looking to add to my collection. The singles are so gorgeous...

    1. I love the singles too Anne. I have always wanted to get a white single (the 'Claire de Lune' I just added is more cream than white, so I still have an excuse to look for a white one!).

  2. I have had that same problem with my peonies. I have been thinking about using a fungicide.

    1. I've never had powdery mildew as bad as I have had this fall Bernideen. It looks a bit unsightly, but I think I'll just leave mine alone and not mess with fungicides. We are maybe a couple of weeks away from frost here and then the foliage will be done anyway.

  3. I adore peonies. My mom taught me a lot of some of what you share, but I'm so pleased to find you've provided such details about them. You really share great information. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Diane. My posts are always on the long side, but it is because I do try to pack in lots of helpful information.

  4. Wonderful post! Great information! Thank you!!!
    I've never moved a peony and I'll try not to.

    1. I must say I wished I had gotten around to moving the white peony last fall. Things would probably have gone so much better.

  5. As always, I thank you so much for this post, Jennifer!
    Now I know why 2 of my peonies that I transplanted last year, did not do "so well" this year (they are alive though!). Yup, I know just what that CRACK sounds like. :-)

    1. It is a terrible sound especially when you think you are being careful. I am pretty sure the peony will recover, but as you have found it may take awhile.

  6. Great informative post about Peonies Jennifer and wonderful photos too. I know Peonies are not the easiest to transplant. When we bought this house there was a huge Peony on the wrong place, becaused I totally changed the garden at that time. I even broke the handle of the spade I remember.

    1. I've been moving quite a number of things this year and have managed to break a few shovels this fall Janneke! A well-rooted perennial that is quite happy where it is can be very stubborn when you attempt to move it.

  7. What a lovely, informative post. You have some beautiful peonies. I do hope the transplant goes

  8. Great post, especially since I have to move a tree peony this fall. Do you know the name of the white peony at the top of your post? It's especially lovely. Thanks!

    1. I managed to misplace my plant tag for this one Dollybelle but, I think it is Paeonia 'Duchess De Nemours' which is a cultivar that is not particularly unusual. You should easily be able to find it through an online nursery.

  9. Years ago, a friend told me to transplant my peonies on September 19. So that has been my rule. When I do this, they never fail to bloom in the spring. Your peonies and all your photographs are so beautiful. They are a real treat when times get difficult. Thank you so much for sharing the beauty!

    1. You've given me some hope that my peony will bloom next spring, Carrie. September 19 seems like a good guideline to me. I timed my move just before a day of rain. The lack of sun and the additional moisture can only help.

  10. Great post. I was redoing a whole bunch of beds this year and transplanted tons of peonies. Some of the ones I transplanted were fine and the foliage remained green. Some of the others (in a different location) all turned brown (the stems). I know the roots are very strong..but I'm curious if I lost those. We'll see in the spring. Keeping my fingers crossed!

    1. I like to move things at this time of year too. In early spring the foliage is still emerging and there is some guess work when it comes to gauging spacing.
      My fingers are crossed that your peonies that turned brown will survive. My theory is that the top growth sometimes dies to preserve the plant's strength in the roots system. Let's hope I'm right!

  11. I used to have a lot of peonies but I'm down to one. I've broken off roots, too, when I dug mine all up but the plants survived.

  12. I have a wee little peony,this is it's first simmer with foliage,it's only about 4 inches high,can I transplant this now,it's Sept. or is it too small.I think it would benefit from a sunnier location.Do I have to cut it down?,Finally saw progress this growing season!

    1. Fall is the best time to move a peony. It's also easier to move a peony that is fairly newly planted. Older more established peonies have big roots which can be a challenge to unearth and move. It sounds like your peony is quite shaded. This might discourage flowers, so that is yet another reason to move it. After the first frost, cut the foliage right to the ground.


I love to hear from you. Thanks for leaving a comment.