Great Plants for Northern Gardens: Day 1— Peonies

PeoniesMany gardeners look forward to November, a time when the northern garden is mostly put to bed and you can relax with a cup of tea and a sense of satisfaction about the season just finished. It’s also a time when your garden from the previous year is fresh in your mind and you can think about which plants you want to grow next year.

Over and over, we hear gardeners say they want reliable plants that perform well in our sometimes unpredictable weather. This November, the staff of the Minnesota State Horticulture Society offers a list of 30 top-performing, super-reliable plants for the northern garden. Many are natives to our area, but not all. We’ve included some trees and shrubs, but the majority of the plants are perennials that will bring color, lush foliage and excitement to your garden.


pink peonyPeonies only bloom for a few weeks, but we would not grow a northern garden without them. Why? First, their variety. Peonies come in three basic types — the herbaceous peonies, which die back each year; the tree peonies, which grow on tree-like trunks; and intersectional peonies, which are a combination of the two. Intersectional peonies will dieback in the fall, but their leaves and blooms are similar to the tree peony types.

Tree peony

Tree peony in bloom

All peonies develop the buds for next year’s bloom the previous fall. This happens underground with herbaceous and intersectional peonies.

In addition to their different types, peonies come in a range of colors from deep reds to white, and different flower types from sweet single peonies to the big puffballs, which are called “bomb doubles.”

Peonies need full sun, regular fertilizer or compost applications and well-drained soil. They may have problems with ants or fungal diseases, but most peonies will remain healthy and flower heavily for decades. The peony you plant next spring will almost certainly out-live you.

One last reason we think peonies are a great plant for northern gardens is their history in Minnesota. Not many people realize this, but in the 1920s, Faribault was “The Peony Capital of the World.” Fields surrounding the city were filled with peonies grown for the Brand Peony Farms, which introduced dozens of hardy peonies for Minnesota gardeners. Minnesota is still home to several well-known peony breeders.


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