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Why Plant Peonies in the Fall?

December 5, 2019

Plant in Fall, Purchase in Winter/Spring

When to purchase-when to plant

This post comes a bit late in the season, but we were busy planting our peonies!

Peonies are sold through much of the year, but the best time to plant them hasn’t changed-FALL only! Why?  Peonies grow nearly all of their roots in the cooling soils of fall.  Rooting is triggered in response to the falling temperatures of soil and allows plants to develop an underground support structure for the following growing season.  Eons of genetic programming in response to the peony’s prevailing native climate has locked this in place and there is little we can do as modern day gardeners to change it.

Spring planted peonies generally produce few roots, if any, in warming soils.  Without supporting root systems peonies must rely on their water and nutrient reserves, found in existing roots, to get them through the hot and often dry summer months.  Many spring planted peonies struggle mightily to survive and survivors of the practice are often set back with no observable gains from early planting (if they survive at all).

Almost everyone reading this has probably seen peonies being sold at garden centers and stores during the spring of the year- sometimes throughout the summer months.  You might ask why would these outlets sell a plant that should be planted in the fall of the year do exactly the opposite?  Two answers may shed some light to the question…

  1. The sale of the plant is purely a convenient way for a business to take advantage of a sale during the period in which most people shop for plants.  They are often sold to be planted like other perennials., without further information.  In other words, its about the money.
  2. Some businesses are much more ‘above board’ about spring sold containerized peonies-they will tell you to wait until fall to plant them.   While all establishments that sell containerized peonies in the spring are taking advantage of nursery traffic, those that supply information to their customers are doing no harm and may be helping to introduce this wonderful plant to a new gardener.  Containerized peonies aren’t the problem, rather, when they are planted is.  Containerized plants can be easily held over by burying them in the garden for the summer.  Plants can later be removed in fall and planted directly in the garden when soil temperatures begin to fall-allowing the plants to use their genetic programming to grow appropriate root systems.

Most peony growers sell their root divisions and grafted woody peonies in the fall of the season for planting at the optimum time for root development.  For most gardeners, planting isn’t the first thing on their mind during fall season, thus peonies are often a forgotten purchase. More experienced peony collectors and gardeners have learned to purchase their plants for fall delivery in the prior winter months for later fall delivery (sometimes 8 months ahead of planting time).  This tactic works well for a number of reasons:  1)  Winter is a great time to shop for plants since it allows more time for thoughtful purchases and research;  2)  The greatest number of select varieties are available early in the year, allowing shoppers to get a shot at purchasing the best and most unique cultivars; 3)  There is plenty of time to prepare the perfect site in the garden to give the peony plant a good growing opportunity;  4)  Peonies ordered for fall delivery are likely bare root plants, which often out perform those purchased in containers.

No matter if you purchase a containerized peony in the spring-summer months or received bare root divisions in the fall, plant them in the fall for best results.  You won’t be disappointed-more likely you will be smiling after you see the results!  I might add-plant bare root divisions immediately for best results.  Peonies do store well, but with each passing day an opportunity for growth is missed if unplanted.  Procrastination is not rewarded!

Happy Growing!

Categorized in: General, Growing Peonies