Planting peony roots

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Planting peony roots usually occurs in the fall or early spring. Before planting, soak the roots in clean water for an hour or two before planting. Then place it in a wide shallow hole with the pink/white buds facing upwards towards the sky. Backfill with the sole that was dug out of the planting hole, ensuring that the “eyes” are about an inch below the final soil surface level.

How to plant peony roots

Peony roots are easy to plant in the garden. Don’t delay planting them simply because they look a bit odd. It’s generally better to get them in the ground as soon as possible after receiving them (unless, of course, the soil outside is still frozen!).

Bare root peonies - unboxing after arrival, ready for planting
Dormant peony roots are often packaged in sawdust or dry peat moss.

Choose a planting location

Choose an area in the garden to plant your peony roots. Peony plants grow best in sunny spots where the leaves receive 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily. This generous amount of sunlight helps the plants produce the best spring blooms. In areas with particularly hot summers and harsh afternoon sunshine, some afternoon shade may be beneficial for the plants. Afternoon shade can reduce watering requirements and help blooms last longer in hot climates (especially in Zones 7-8).

Peonies also need moist soil and thrive best in soil that drains away excess water easily. Typically, peonies grow well in sandy loam soil that is watered regularly (via rain or irrigation), but they can also grow in less-than-perfect garden soil. Peony plants in clay soil or other poorly-draining spots can be planted on an elevated mound-type of the garden bed, where well-draining garden soil is piled up to create a free-draining flower bed that allows excess water to run down to the lower elevation areas rather than ponding around the roots.

Unpack the peony roots

Carefully remove the peony roots from their package. Peony roots are often sold in a mix of dry peat moss or sawdust. Brush the peat/sawdust off each root so you can get a good look at them.

Each peony root has three main parts – the roots, the crown, and the eyes. The roots of the peony are thick, fleshy, elongated tubers. Peony roots look quite a bit like brown carrots. Young roots may be supple and bend slightly, while older roots seem woody and chunky. The peony roots all gather together and join up at the “crown” of the peony plant. The crown is the knobby lump at the top. The “eyes” are the fresh little buds growing out of the “crown.” Peony “eyes” are generally pink or white in color and tend to be slightly pointed.

The most important part of the peony root to find (in terms of planting purposes) are the “eyes.” The “eyes” must be planted at a certain elevation and should be placed near the top of the planting hole. Have a look at each peony root to look for the eyes. Most bare-root peonies sold in garden centers and plant nurseries have 2-3 eyes on them. See the above photo to see the peony “eyes” circled.

How to plant peony roots - bare root peony planting
The pink/white buds, called “eyes”, will grow upwards to become stems. Make sure the pink/white “eyes” are at the top of the crown when you plant it. These buds should be facing upwards towards the sky. The peony root shown in the photo above should be planted in the orientation shown in the photo (with the pink eyes at the top where they can grow towards the sky).

Soak the peony roots

Dormant peony roots are often dry after months of cool storage. Soaking them in clean, lukewarm water can help plump them up and hydrate them, giving them a kick-start towards getting established in the soil.

Fill a bowl with clean, lukewarm water to soak the peony roots in. Very dry peony roots can be soaked for up to four hours to rehydrate them. Peony roots that don’t look too dry at all can be soaked for about a half hour. Soaking the peony roots before planting isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly does seem to help the dormant roots wake up from their slumber (and make watering them less worrisome in the first few weeks after planting).

Peony root after soaking, before planting
Peony root that has been soaked before planting, shown with the buds/eyes at the top

Plant the peony roots

Dig a wide, shallow hole for each peony root. Each hole should be about twice as wide as the peony root is long. Planting holes need not be much deeper than the peony root. If planting multiple peony roots, space them about 3 feet apart.

Place the peony root at the bottom of the hole with the crown and eyes at the top. Some peony roots are oddly shaped, making this part a bit tricky. Look for the pink/white “eyes.” The “eyes” should be near the top of the peony root in its planted orientation. Try to align the peony root so all the eyes (usually 2-3 of them on one root) are on a level plane with one another (all at the same approximate elevation). The peony root’s “eyes” should be about 1″ below the final soil surface.

Hold the peony root with one hand while backfilling with the soil that came out of the hole. Try not to leave any large air pockets, but also be careful not to knock any buds/eyes off the crown of the peony root. Take another look at the elevation of the eyes as compared to the soil surrounding the planting hole. In most climates, peony “eyes” should be about 1″ below the soil surface. Peonies can be planted a little deeper in zones 2-3, but should not generally be planted with the eyes lower than 2″ below the soil surface, as this can negatively affect flowering.

How to plant a peony root
Peony root in the planting hole with the eyes at the top, about 1′ below the soil surface surrounding the planting hole.

Water & mulch

After planting, water the entire planting area deeply with clean water. If the soil settles significantly inside the perimeter of the planting hole, more soil can be added to top up the soil level so it is flush with the surrounding soil. After watering, apply a layer of organic mulch to help keep moisture in the soil and discourage weeds.

Video tutorial

Here is a video showing exactly how to plant peony roots (bare-root peonies) in the garden:

Caring for newly-planted peonies

Newly planted peony roots should be watered deeply once a week. In dry conditions, they may need to be watered more frequently. Watering the new roots will help them to get established in the soil and get them off to a good start.

Water the peony at least weekly for the first year or two after planting. Once peonies are established, they are very low-maintenance. Some peony plants that have been in the ground for years receive little to no irrigation and still manage to produce pretty blooms each spring. It’s all about getting them off to a good start! Water their lots in the first few years to enjoy decades of blooms.

Newly planted peonies generally do not need to be fertilized unless planted in nutrient-deficient soil. If fertilizer is required, peonies are fed in spring when the stems are about a foot tall and the leaves start to fold out. Some peonies are also fed in late summer/early fall.

Pink and cream peony
Newly planted peony roots may not bloom for a year or two after planting. Allow the roots to focus on getting established in the soil for those early years so they can put on gorgeous blooms for future decades!

Peony varieties to consider planting

Some types of specialty peonies are sold most often as roots, in dormant bare root form. Here are some specialty peonies that can be grown from roots:

Tips for choosing peony roots at the garden center

Some independent nurseries divide their own peony roots and offer them for sale in bulk baskets. If this is the case, you get to choose the individual roots you buy.

Look for firm roots that look like baby carrots. It is ok if the roots have been cut/shortened. Avoid thick woody roots with holes or other odd knobby bits. Try to find root sections with at least three eyes (the pink growth buds). Avoid any roots with signs of mold, mildew, or rot.

Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

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