Peonies, anyone?

Published 7:32 pm Thursday, April 25, 2019

What is this amazing plant that I saw? It had the largest flowers and there was a whole field of them, like they had been planted. These are peonies, grown for the fresh-cut flower market.

I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the North Carolina Farm School – Down East, for two years in a row. This is a business school, through N.C. State Extension, that teaches the ins and outs of having a farm business. There are eight classroom sessions, a one-on-one, on-farm consultation and four field days. As a part of this school, I have had the opportunity to go on several field days. In my opinion, this is the best part! This year, on one of the field days, we visited with Terra Ceia Farms in Pantego. They grow and sell spring and summer bulbs through mail-order and internet sales. They are also one of the largest peony growers on the East Coast. Their flowers are grown right here in Beaufort County and then shipped all over the world! There are several other smaller growers in Beaufort County as well.

If you are not familiar with this plant and its exquisite flowers, you should be! In my opinion, no garden can be complete without at least one peony. There are several species and flower forms so, it may take a little research to find what you like the best. Garden peonies come in five flower forms: single, semi-double, double, Japanese and anemone. The most popular type grown in gardens is the double-flower peony. There are also tree peonies, fernleaf peonies and intersectional hybrids. Tree peonies have hard woody stems like a shrub and do not die back in the fall. Fernleaf peonies have finely divided foliage and single, dark red flowers. Intersectional peonies are tree peonies that have been grafted to be herbaceous. Like garden and fernleaf peonies, these will die back in the fall. Care for garden, fernleaf and intersectional peonies is the same. Most importantly, take care to make sure your pH is correct (6.0-7.0) by getting a soil test from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Do not fertilize until they have been in the ground for three to five seasons. Support the foliage from laying on the ground as it grows in the spring and summer. As flowers begin to fade, remove them by cutting. Make sure to have full to partial sun and well-drained soil to grow great peonies.

Peonies, like fruit trees, have a chilling requirement. This means, depending on cultivar, they require anywhere from 100 to 1,000 hours between 35 degrees and 45 degrees to break dormancy. They are hardy from USDA zone 2 to USDA zone 8. In eastern North Carolina, we are on the edge of the hardiness zone, using mulch to keep roots a little cooler will help with our hot summers.

Peonies are planted by rhizomes. Select healthy rhizomes with four to five eyes; these will flower a little quicker. Expect it to take anywhere from three to five years for the first flowering. Plant in a hole dug to a minimum of 12-inches deep and 12-inches wide. Break the soil up and replace in the hole, and plant your peony rhizome in the middle of your hole, making sure the eyes are approximately 1 inch below the soil surface. Finish filling the hole and gently tamp. Water thoroughly once you are done planting, and make certain that soil doesn’t dry out. Once established, peonies are drought tolerant. If you are planting an intersectional tree peony, it will be planted deeper in the soil profile. If it is grafted, make certain the graft union is planted 4-6 inches below the soil surface. Enjoy your peonies!

The Extension Master Gardener volunteers in Beaufort County are having their annual Pass-Along Plant sale May 4 from 9 a.m. to noon. If you are looking for a specific plant, you may find it there for way less than retail! They have other knickknacks, lawn art and landscaping materials, as well. This sale is their main fundraiser and supports their education and programming efforts throughout the entire year. Check it out!

Have horticulture a question? Call the Extension Master Gardener volunteers in Beaufort County or Gene Fox at 252-946-0111; email Your question might just make the paper!

Gene Fox is the area consumer horticulture agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension.