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Growing Peonies on the Prairies
by Brian Porter
November 3, 2018

Peonies are among the easiest and hardiest perennials you can plant in your garden. While they are sometimes criticized for having a short blooming season (about 2 weeks), that is true of other plants as well, such as tulips, irises,lilacs, yet they are still worthwhile growing in our gardens. It is important to realize that by choosing early, midseason and late blooming peonies, you can have at least six weeks of peonies blooming in your garden.

The usual peonies grown here on the prairies are called herbaceous peonies, which have perennial roots, but tops that die down each fall. Another type of peonies, sometimes marketed here, are the woody stemmed "tree peonies", which are really shrubs that are best grown in zone 4 or warmer climates. They can be successfully grown here to some extent if you are willing to give them some winter protection as you might for tender roses, although from time to time there have been reports of unprotected tree peonies blooming, especially the lutea hybrids. Japanese tree peonies are the most readily available but may need more protection. Generally the more wood that survives the winter, the more blooms you will have.

A third category of peonies is called Intersectional hybrid peonies or Itoh hybrids. These are hybrids between the above two types, with blooms that may resemble tree peonies, but with herbaceous tops (occasionally a few inches of wood may survive). They are easier to grow than tree peonies, but they are not quite as hardy as the other herbaceous types. Most winters they will survive well without protection, but a bad winter such as we had in 2017/2018 can wipe them out, so mulching well for winter is safest. Intersectionals, or Itoh's (named after the first successful breeder in Japan, Toichi Itoh) are valued for their new colors that are not found in other herbaceous peonies - often shades of yellow, copper, purple, lavender, rose, or blends of these, sometimes bicolored. Some of them bloom late and will extend the blooming season. They are not common yet, and are more expensive to purchase than other peonies. This category is rapidly expanding, with new cultivars coming on the market frequently. They are generally strong stemmed and do not require staking, making them excellent landscape specimens.

Garden centers offer potted peony plants in spring and throughout the summer into fall. These can be planted when convenient.

Traditionally, peonies have been sold bare root (often packed in peat moss) in fall, which is the ideal time (mid September to mid October). While you may find roots sold that way in spring as well, it is more stressful on the plants to plant them then, and it may take them an extra year to get established. Mail order companies (particularly peony specialists that propagate their own peonies) offer the widest selection of peonies for fall planting, but they may make their listings known as early as January (sometimes as late as May or June) and early ordering is advisable for rarer cultivars. Bare root peonies from specialists may have larger and stronger roots than those that have been potted in small pots. These peonies may bloom the first spring after planting, but it is not unusual for them to take two or three years to come into bloom, during which time they are expanding their root system.

Peonies love sunshine and a well-drained soil. Clay soils are acceptable if modified with compost or peat moss. Rotted manure is not recommended unless kept away from direct contact with the roots. A location away from the house is preferred, but southern, eastern and western exposures are acceptable, but the roots should be planted well away from the house foundation to allow for symmetrical growth, more natural rainfall and less heat reflection. Generally, peonies do not require fertilizer on good garden soil, but sandy soils that are subject to nutrient leaching may benefit from periodic applications of fertilizer. Any rose or flower fertilizer may be used. Established peonies are fairly drought tolerant, but may benefit from pampering the first year or two with supplementary watering. Beware of drip irrigation or overhead lawn sprinklers that may keep the soil constantly wet, as peonies are more likely to die from overwatering than underwatering.

If you like to cut peonies for indoor use, do not cut more than one-third of the flowers, and keep the stems as short as practical. Continual excessive cutting of the same peony plant can rob it of needed foliage and cause it to decline in health. For that reason also, peonies should not be cut down after flowering, but left until late fall - generally after heavy frosts and after the leaves have started to turn yellow or red - although some hybrid peonies will remain green until snowfall. The tops can be left till spring, but it is a messier job to clean them off in spring. For disease control, fall removal of foliage is desirable.

For information on peony specialist vendors in Canada, visit the Canadian Peony Society website at Extensive information on blooming dates can be found on the American Peony Society webpage,( for which much of the data came from Canadian growers.

You can also find our peony society on Facebook.

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