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Peonies are happiest in climates that experience significant winter cold. Conventional wisdom holds that herbaceous peonies need between 500 and 1,000 "chill hours" of 35-45 degree temperatures during winter to thrive and bloom. (A chill hours map can be found here: Chill Hours Map. Click for detailed info regarding your region.)
However, with careful choices and some special care, peonies can sometimes be encouraged to thrive in other regions. Here are some tips for growing herbaceous peonies in warmer parts of the county.
First, start by selecting peony varieties that manage heat better. These include Big Ben, Bowl of Beauty, Coral Charm, Do Tell, Festiva Maxima, Kansas, Mrs. FD Roosevelt, Myra MacRae and Paula Fay. Conventional wisdom suggests choosing varieties that flower early in the season, before temperatures get too hot.
California: California is a huge state with a wide variety of growing zones and climates. For growing peonies, the best results are typically achieved at higher altitudes where temperatures tend to be cooler. Choose a site with shade during the hottest part of the afternoon and water deeply two to three times per week.
Arizona, New Mexico and Texas: Heat tolerant herbaceous peonies (see above) may be able to thrive in the northern regions and higher elevation parts of these states. Again, partial shade can be helpful during the hottest part of the day.
Water thoroughly twice weekly during growing season. Once established, do not water peonies from the beginning of September through the middle of October. This prompts the plant to slip into dormancy. Trim foliage to the ground in mid-September.
Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi: Plant the peony shallowly, with the eyes no more than 1” below the surface of the soil. Water thoroughly twice to three times per week during growing season.
Birmingham, Alabama is often considered the southern most point for being able to grow peonies.
In warm regions, plant in November or even December. This gives the plants time to settle in and begin to develop small feeder roots before spring weather triggers the development of top growth.
Peonies do not require, nor benefit from, lots of fertilizer. Choose a balanced fertilizer that is not rich in nitrogen, as excessive nitrogen promotes dense foliage at the expense of flowers. Fertilize in early summer when the plants are developing the eyes for next season’s growth. Adding fertilizer once every two to three years is sufficient.
Bone meal is sometimes recommended as a fertilizer for peonies. However, bone meal, which smells like the animal bones from which it was derived, can attract dogs, raccoons, coyotes and other animals. The scent encourages digging which can damage peony roots.
Herbaceous peonies must have a winter period of dormancy to prepare for the following year’s growth and flowering.
In regions where cold temperatures don't arrive in autumn and initiate dormancy, you'll need to give your peonies an assist. When your peony’s foliage yellows, cut it to the ground. If it doesn’t yellow, wait until November and cut off the foliage, forcing the plant into dormancy.
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