One of my last garden projects in October was adding to the peony collection. Most visitors haven't seen the main rose garden, the lilacs or the peonies, but these sections should be ready for visitors next spring. What guests have seen, if they've come in spring, are the glorious bouquets. Peonies are so big and lush, people are really stunned by their size and beauty. Few seem to know how very easily these exotic blooms can be had.
Peonies are best planted in the fall, and even early winter seems fine. The first peonies here didn't go into the ground until mid-December, and every single one of those 16 plants bloomed the first year, and true to form. The next lot went in in November two years ago, and this year I got them in the week of October 19. We'll see if there's any difference. In any case, it's not a hard job, certainly not in the sandy loam we have here. Dig a hole about a foot deep and something more in diameter, make a cone of soil in the center, and lay the peony with buds up on top of that cone. If you're lucky, the peonies will have some long roots, so settle them carefully with lots of room. The important thing is to not plant deeply. Here in zone 7, I plant them with just about an inch of soil on top, and so far, so good. They say peonies won't bloom if you plant them too deep. You can see the planting is successful: these photos are of a bucket of blooms, just cut, set on the ground to photograph before bringing them inside to make several bouquets.
Your plants won't even want fertilizer the first year, and after that, very little. When blooming is over, leave the foliage until winter. I'd been cutting the plants to the ground anytime after October, but this year read that they should be left until the first hard frost, so now I'm waiting. When you do cut the brown foliage, cut it just above the ground and get rid of it. Don't leave any debris around the plants. It's true that the plants are not attractive after late summer, so you might consider that when choosing where to plant. Don't crowd other plants around them, though: they do like air. Keep in mind that each plant can spread to about two feet in diameter, and they should have air space between them to prevent fungus.
Peonies do not need to be sprayed. I don't spray pesticides anyway, but point that out to gardeners who do. When the flower buds form, they have a sticky substance that ants love. Don't do anything about it. When you cut flowers to bring indoors, spray them off with water and let the flowers drip dry over the sink.
Many peonies will need some help, and that is in supporting the branches as the large heavy blooms develop. Most garden centers sell metal stakes with a horizontal loop on the end, not closed so that you can slip it around the peony stem. I prefer these, but of course you can use slim bamboo stakes and velcro ties or any other method.
Heaven Scent emphasizes wonderfully scented plants, and some peonies are in this category. But not all; some actually have a rather unpleasant scent, and some none or nearly none. Check plant descriptions carefully when buying. The variety of blooms is tremendous; not just the big lush white or pink or fuschia blooms your grandmother may have grown. Here, for example, is a little vase with some singles and semi-doubles.
By choosing early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties, you should be able to enjoy a month of blooms. I get the greatest number of blooms in the first and second weeks of May, in good time for Mother's Day. It is said that you can cut stems while the buds are still tight, wrap them in plastic and put them in the refrigerator, and take them out a month or two later to let them bloom. But I've never been willing to chance foregoing the full opening of the whole lot.