150 Tips: Peonies for the North

Brand Peonies, Minnesota’s first peony breeding operation, opened in Faribault, MN, in 1868, just two years after the founding of MSHS. Peonies have been a part of Minnesota gardens and horticultural history every since! The state is still home base for several peony specialty nurseries and breeding operations because out climate is perfect for peonies. They love a cold winter and were a true sign of summer for generations of Minnesota gardeners.

Of course, horticultural society publications were filled with peony advice. Here are a few of our favorite tips from over the years.

peony in bloom

Nothing says June like peonies in bloom.

Think soil. “Good garden soil will grow good peonies,” said W.A. Sisson in the Minnesota Horticulturist in 1923. The soil should be well drained, very sunny and free of tree roots, he said. For fertility, he recommended compost made of leaves, manure, sod and food waste that has been rotted for at least a year. Spread it over the tops of plants and do not turn it in, Sisson said — advice today’s no-till gardeners would endorse!

Plant peonies in fall. That same article noted that the best time to plant peonies is in the fall, beginning in the last of August until freeze-up. In the first year after planting, cover the plant with mulch or straw in winter to prevent constant thawing and freezing. The peony does not like to be disturbed, so the first season you will not get bloom. The second a few, but by the third it will be flowering beautifully.

pink peony myrtle gentry

Myrtle Gentry peony is named for a long-time Brand Peony employee and peony expert.

Don’t ignore peonies in July, August and September. While peonies bloom in June and tend to be a simple green presence the rest of the year, Miss Myrtle Gentry, who worked at Brand Peonies for decades, recommended in 1936 the peonies be given “a good drenching” every two weeks if the weather is dry. (Keep in mind, 1936 was in the midst of the Dust Bowl years and Minnesota was dry and very, very hot.)

Divide peonies in August. August is a good month to divide peonies, the hort society suggested in 1952. Dig up the old clump with a spade or garden fork. Then, with a sharp knife cut the clump into pieces so that each piece has at least two or three buds. Plant so that the buds are 2 inches deep when planting is complete. This is a great way to share plants with family members, friends or fellow gardeners or to increase your own peony garden.

Pick in the “puffy stage.” In a 2006 article on designing floral arrangements with peonies, Ardith Beveridge advised cutting peonies in the puffy stage, when the buds are about to burst open. If cut when the buds are too tight, the bloom may not be open at all. Cut the stem with a sharp knife and place it in very warm to slightly hot water with flower food  for 15 minutes to hydrate. Peonies will last in arrangements up to a week.

For more information on peonies, check out the Minnesota Peony Society.

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