How to grow and care for peonies - and why we’re all so obsessed with the fluffy, fragrant flowers

Frothy, fragrant peonies are incredibly popular in the UK during the spring and summer months. (Getty Images)
Frothy, fragrant peonies are incredibly popular in the UK during the spring and summer months. (Getty Images)

One of Britain’s favourite flowers - the peony - is in season and boy, don’t we know it.

They’re not around for long each year: peony season usually just lasts for the month of May. This year, the soaring April temperatures have prompted many to flower early - hence why they’ve already started taking over social media feeds.

If you want to get in on the action, they’re not that difficult to grow. Well, not when you’ve got advice from the experts.

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Picking your flowers

According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the reason we love these voluminous perennials has much to do with the range of colours - from dark purple to pale yellow - on offer.

Colour is a good place to start, too. If you’ve found yourself feeling particularly green-fingered lately, you might have noticed yourself putting together a colour palette for your garden.

The emerging colour palette will help you determine which type of peony will work best for you; herbaceous or intersectional.

If you’re looking for more unusual colours, think “unusual apricot and purple shades” The RHS explains, then you might lean towards picking from the intersectional variety.

More common colours, such as white and dark red are available in both intersectional and herbaceous options.

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Once you’ve made a decision on the colours, in usual circumstances, there are plenty of peonies to be had at your local nursery or garden centre.

During the COVID-19 pandemic - when these aren’t so available - there are a range of great online choices, too.

Planting your peonies

These flowers grow best when planted in late spring if they’re in pots and in autumn if they’re bare rooted.

Peonies love sun, so make sure you find a sun-kissed part of your garden to grow them in.

As you can probably tell from the size of their heads, they need quite a lot of space to sprawl out, so ensure you leave about a square metre of space for them to thrive without competing with other flowers.

If you’re planting peony seeds, it’s worth noting it’s likely you won’t see the fruit of your labour until next summer.

According to floral expert, Bex Partridge, they’re worth putting in the effort for: “They are hardy and each plant can last years and years, being divided each autumn and producing more and more plants.”

If you are looking for quick results, “buy a 3-5 year old one for it flower straight away” Partridge explains.

“Their short flowering season makes them even more special, they put on such a beautiful show for us when all the other spring flowers are coming to an end and the rest of the garden is waking up.”

We’re convinced.

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Caring for your peonies

Once they’re in the ground, it’s time to start caring for your peonies. They’re quite an easy plant to look after once they’re established.

“Water regularly in dry spells during the first year to aid establishment, especially if planted in spring or summer. Established peonies are deep-rooted and after the first year should not need routine watering.” An RHS spokesperson explains.

If you’d like to promote maximum growth, RHS also recommends: “Apply a general-purpose fertiliser, such as Growmore, each year in spring at 70gm per sq m (2oz per sq yd). Then mulch with a layer of garden compost or well-rotted manure to conserve moisture and suppress weeds, but avoid covering the centre of the plant as this could damage the buds.”

As Partridge noted, by dividing the flowers each Autumn, you’ll produce “more and more plants”.

Bex Partridge shares some of her flowering peonies. (Bex Partridge)
Bex Partridge shares some of her flowering peonies. (Bex Partridge)

Encountering problems

Experts have suggested that as far as flowers go, peonies are pretty easy to look after. That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter the odd problem from time to time.

As we’ve found, peonies are sun-seekers, so the RHS suggests: “Deep planting and a shady position may result in a lack of flowers. In autumn move the plant to a more suitable position and/or replant shallower (so no more than 2.5cm (1in) of soil over the top of the buds). If moved, it can take a year or two to start flowering again.”

Peony wilt - also known as grey mould - is another problem you may encounter.

This is the only serious disease peonies can pick up and it can be addressed by promptly removing all infected materials. There’s no chemical way of treating it, so keep an eye on your precious buds.

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Drying your flowers

When something flowers as beautifully as a peony, it’s unsurprising that many people are keen to hold onto the magic for as long as possible.

With a relatively short lifespan, you can dry these gorgeous flowers to keep them in your home for longer.

Partridge, who is an expert is everlasting flowers, explains: “Yes they do dry (not always successfully but certainly worth a go to preserve their beauty). It’s best to hang them upside down in a dry, dark, cool space individually as the buds and stems can be quite juicy.

“Remove the leaves before hanging and aim for the double petalled variety rather than single as the later tend to fall and droop. Hang for about 3-4 weeks until the stems are solid and if necessary wire for extra strength.”

We won’t just have thriving gardens by the end of the coronavirus lockdown, we’ll also have beautiful bunches of everlasting flowers.

Where to buy peonies online

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Paeonia Karl Rosenfield | £12.95 from Gardening Express

An impressive and free-flowering cultivar whose strong stems display wonderfully large, semi-rose flowers, deeply coloured in purple-red.

Peony Plant - Sarah Bernhardt | £7.99 from Dobies

The winner of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, these enormous, fragrant, double rose-pink flowers have been popular since Edwardian times. You might have to wait a little longer for delivery here, but you’ll be super prepared for next year.

China peony Aster Seed | £1.50 from B&Q

The home and garden giant currently has a 50% off summer flowering bulbs and has five kinds of peonies, including gorgeous China peony seeds and bulbs are now down from £3 to £1.50.

Peony Seeds | £29.99 from Sutton Seeds

From indulgent ruffles of raspberry pink petals with a delicate perfume to a sought-after rare hybrid between a border peony and a tree peony, Sutton Seeds has a wide range of peony options.