By: Kathee Mierzejewski
If you have been moving things around in your garden and have some peonies, you might wonder if you find the little tubers left behind, can you plant them and expect them to grow. The answer is yes, but there is an appropriate way of propagating peony plants that you should follow if you expect to be successful.
If you have been considering propagating peony plants, you should know there are some important steps to follow. The only way to multiply peony plants is to divide peonies. This might sound complicated, but it’s not.
First, you need to use a sharp spade and dig around the peony plant. Be very careful not to damage the roots. You want to be sure to dig up as much of the root as possible.
Once you have the roots out of the ground, rinse them vigorously with the hose so they are clean and you can actually see what you have. What you are looking for are the crown buds. These will actually be the part that comes through the ground after planting and forms a new peony plant when you divide peonies.
After rinsing, you should leave the roots in the shade so they soften up a bit. They will be easier to cut. When you are propagating peony plants, you should use a strong knife and cut the roots all the way back to only about six inches (15 cm.) from the crown. Again, this is because the crown grows into the peony and dividing peony plants requires a crown on each piece you plant.
You will want to make sure each piece has at least one crown bud. Three visible crown buds is best. However, at least one will do. You will continue to divide peonies until you have as many peonies as you can get from the roots you originally dug up.
Plant the pieces in a location suitable for growing peonies. Make sure the buds on the pieces are not more than 2 inches (5 cm.) under the soil or they may have trouble growing. If the temperatures are fairly even, you can actually store your pieces in peat moss until you are ready to plant them on a warmer day. Don’t store them too long or they may dry out and won’t grow.
So now you know that propagating peony plants isn’t too terribly difficult, and so long as you have one good peony plant to dig up, you can be dividing peony plants and create many in no time.
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Q: My neighbor tells me fall is the time to divide peonies. Can this be right? Are there other perennials I should divide then? — Patricia Christian, Branchburg, N.J.
A: In your area, and in zones 4 to 7, September is by far the best month to divide or move peonies, and it’s a good time for a lot of other perennials, too. Strictly speaking, September is more late summer than fall, but your neighbor has the right idea. Just don’t wait too long: Newly divided perennials of all kinds need at least 4 weeks of growing — 6 weeks is even better — before the really hard frosts arrive.
People tend to think of spring as the time to divide perennials, but for many species there are major advantages to waiting until after Labor Day, no matter what zone you live in. In the spring, when many other garden tasks are vying for our attention, the window of opportunity is narrow: just a couple of weeks between when the plants sprout and before they get more than 2 or 3 inches tall. In late summer and fall, the pressure is off you have four to six weeks to get the work done. But the most compelling reason to avoid spring division is that you’ll get fewer flowers that season. (The exceptions to this rule — fall-flowering plants such as asters and chrysanthemums — are best divided in the spring, which allows them time to recover before blooming.) Consider daylilies, for example. These perennials are so tough you can move them anytime the ground isn’t frozen they will rebound eventually. Expert growers, however, strongly prefer the fall to the spring for transplanting and dividing. No matter how early in spring you get to the job, digging up daylilies then invariably will diminish the summer’s flower count. By waiting for late summer, when blooming is finished and the weather begins to cool slightly, you give the new divisions the longest possible time to develop new roots, leaves, and, ultimately, flower stalks the next season.
Peonies are a little different from most perennials in this regard. Like Oriental poppies or Siberian irises, they rarely require dividing but if you want to break a mature plant into several smaller ones or to move an existing plant, the work is best done in late summer or early fall. Peonies divided in the spring grow very poorly. So, four to six weeks before hard frost, when the leaves begin to look ragged, cut back the foliage and dig up the plants. On the fleshy crown you will see protruding dormant buds (“eyes”) that will be next spring’s red shoots. (The reason to wait for the leaves to begin to decline is that the longer the leaves can send energy to the roots, the stronger these eyes will be.) With a sharp knife, cut the roots into sections that have at least three prominent eyes. Set each division in its new spot with the eyes facing up, at a depth of no more than 2 inches below the surface. (Peonies planted too deep will grow, but they’ll bloom poorly or not at all.) It may take two years for these three-eye divisions to become large enough to bloom again. Dividing the plants into larger root pieces will produce bigger plants and flowers sooner. On the ease-of-dividing scale, other perennials fall between the resiliency of daylilies and the fussiness of peonies. But almost anything can be divided at the end of the season, when the soil is well-warmed and moist and the sun is less intense — conditions that are perfect for new root growth.
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Herbaceous and intersectional peonies should be cut back in the fall. Photo by: photowind / Shutterstock.
Unlike roses, peony bushes do not require precise pruning to thrive. Often pruning is only necessary in the event of damage or disease.
If you want large flowers, remove the side-buds that develop near the base of each terminal bud. However, if you want to prolong the blooming season, leave the side-buds alone—they will bloom later than the terminal buds.
Peonies do not need regular division for successful blooming. However, if you’d like to have more, you can divide your mature plants as a form of propagation. The best time for dividing is in the fall when the plant is nearing dormancy. Peony roots cut into pieces with 3-5 eyes have the best chance of success. Learn more about dividing peonies.
Many should be staked to support heavy blooms, especially if you live in a rainy climate. Herbaceous varieties can be supported with a peony ring , while tree peonies are more suited for the use of bamboo stakes and natural twine . If this sounds like too much hassle, there are many varieties that feature strong stems that don’t require staking.
They are not overly thirsty plants—in fact, overwatering can lead to problems. Give your peony bush excellent drainage and begin watering in spring if you go more than two weeks without rain. Then, provide weekly, deep watering throughout the dry summer months (one inch at each watering). Continue watering after flowering to ensure vigorous plants the following year. There is no need to water once they have gone dormant.
In very cold climates, they may benefit from a loose winter mulching with organic matter such as pine needles or shredded bark. Keep mulch a few inches away from the base of the plant. Remove the mulch in early spring to allow new growth at the soil surface. For tree peonies especially, winter protection with burlap and a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch (pulled aside in the spring) is wise in Zone 4 and colder parts of Zone 5.
Many gardeners have difficulty understanding why their peonies don’t bloom. Here are the most common reasons:
Peony buds secrete a sweet nectar that attracts ants. The ants do not hurt the plant and they aren’t required for the blooms to open. If cutting flowers to take indoors, gently rinse the blossoms in a bucket of water to get rid of the ants.
When a peony's leaves curl it is a sign of stress. This can be caused by lack of water, a virus, or unusual weather conditions. Many plants recover from leaf curl if the issue is corrected and go on to bloom normally.
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Man Dividing Peonies in Spring, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Not sure how to propagate peonies? The process for dividing peonies isn’t all that difficult. Because these are long-lived perennials, you rarely need to tackle splitting peonies. But there are occasions when you might need to deal with propagating peonies. Learn what you need to know to be successful.
Unlike many perennials, peonies don’t typically need to be divided. In most situations where these old-fashioned favorites are growing in an ideal setting, you probably won’t need to handle dividing peonies for 10 or 15 years. Explore some of the reasons why you might want to consider splitting peonies.
Because peonies are so long-lived, they’re often referred to as a heritage or legacy perennial.That’s a plant that’s passed down through generations. Sometimes you’ll want to undertake dividing peonies because of sentimental reasons. You may want a piece of a plant a relative or friend grew, or you may be planning on propagating peonies so you can save a plant on an abandoned lot.
Peonies are favorite graveside plants, and you may have a treasured peony growing near a loved one’s grave that you’d like to use as a memorial planting in your own garden. Sometimes peonies planted too closely together wind up needing divided because clumps become crowded. The bottom line on dividing peonies successfully is understanding that these plants dislike being disturbed or moved, so only do it when absolutely necessary.
It’s best to embark on splitting peonies when plants are dormant—in fall or very early spring before new growth appears. If you dig plants in spring, plants may fail to bloom for a year or two. Tackle dividing peonies in summer, and you risk interrupting the production of the plant’s internal food stores that fuel next year’s growth and blooming. The best time for propagating peonies is in autumn, after plants have become dormant.
The procedure for dividing peonies is very simple. To lift and split entire clumps of peonies, start by digging around the plant very carefully. Insert your shovel into soil just beyond the outermost leaves of the clump. Slip your shovel beneath the clump, too. Your goal is to free the plant from soil without breaking the tuberous roots.
When you can lift the peony clump out of its planting spot, shift it gently onto a tarp. Clip leaf stems to just a few inches tall. Toss healthy leaves into your compost pile. Bag peony leaves covered with powdery mildew for trash disposal.
Gently shake soil from peony roots. Transfer this soil back into the planting hole. If necessary, grab the hose and gently wash soil from the roots. Once the tuberous roots are fully exposed, start the process of dividing the peonies. Using a sharp knife, cut peonies into sections having at least three or four healthy growing buds or eyes. Sometimes you can just pull the tubers apart by hand.
Toss any tubers that are soft or diseased. If you must save them, cut out soft spots and dust the tuber with fungicide to prevent disease. Replant tubers at the right depth for your region and water. In cold regions, add a loose winter mulch over them once the ground freezes.
Crown division, the traditional method of propagating all, but the woody peony types, works well with the Itoh Group sorts. During a propagation cycle (3 to 4 years), the underground stem (crown) extends somewhat with tuberous growth and swells with food storage similar in habit to the Lactiflora parent type, facilitating the process of division. Tuberous food storage roots will similarly extend outward and downward, but will have a hard core, like the tree peonies. After a three or four year cycle, well grown plants will yield a comparable increase. The tuberous roots are of smaller diameter and longer than the common peony parent and somewhat less so than the woody peony parent. Adjust the length of tuberous root on individual divisions to retain an approximately equal amount of food storage for support of first year growth.
When grown in raised rows, reset them so that the stem buds are deeper, to four or five inches below top of the raised rows, but not lower than the adjacent soil surface. Moisture support during the first year is better when planted more deeply and the buds are protected from excessively wet conditions. So placed, when the stems grow in future seasons, they will form stem buds at multiple levels: the original crown level, very near or at the soil surface and one, two or three internodes in between on fully perennial portion of underground stems. This affords the gardener a maximum flexibility of propagation choices. The buds on perennial stems can be used for grafting scions, or, if left on the replant pieces, the extended stem can be positioned horizontally where all buds will put up stems, contributing to more rapid expansion of the bush in the following seasons. Alternatively, if taken up for dividing after three or four seasons, it may be found the growth at each of the original stem buds will have grown into a quality division which can be taken with a minimal dividing damage.
Additionally, some Itoh Group cultivars, although not all, have proven successful in micro propagation (in glass, under sterile laboratory conditions). When a cultivar succeeds, a large number of its plantlets can be produced in a comparatively short cycle. When grown large enough on artificial media to establish upon transfer to soil, those which survive the transfer can then be grown on to a size that can be cataloged for sale. This system has been going on long enough for production management challenges to have been resolved. A number of these micro propagated Itoh group peonies are now beginning to be offered for sale (inexpensively) in four inch pots. Concern involving the root growth pattern of micro propagated peonies is valid, as these plants’ roots grow in a tight whorl, which is not an easily broken pattern. Mutations of flower and plant structures have also been more common with this type of propagation, but better laboratory techniques have been instituted to resolve this issue.