Best Way to Plant Peonies and Poppies

Peonies and poppies, two of the outstanding plants of the June garden, must be planted at the end of the season instead of the beginning.

Oriental poppy roots are shipped from August on, when the plants are dor­mant; they do not survive handling at any time of year when in active growth. The actual planting method is the same as for most perennials, but this plant is different in that soon after planting (even if it is as late as October-November) it sends up a rosette of leaves. These form a living mulch that serves to protect the plant from winter damage. It’s still a good idea to mulch the crown, but be careful to ease the mulching material under the leaves. Those leaves will die away in spring, when new growth begins.

Plant Peonies Best Way to Plant Peonies and Poppies

A mature oriental poppy can occupy a space two to three feet in diameter. After blooming, the plant goes dormant, dying back to the soil line and leaving a large, awkward space in the border, so plant late summer perennials near it, or be prepared to put annuals in each year.

Peony roots are shipped later, usually from October on, and very strange-looking they are when you unpack them. I’ve had numerous telephone calls from gardeners familiar with the growing plant but seeing the underground part for the first time. It’s hard to know which way is up; the cut-back stubs of the past season’s stems often are assumed mistakenly to be cut-off roots, and the unfortu­nate peony gets planted upside down. It might survive, but why make its life more difficult than it need be?

Peony plants are long-lived (there have been a few hundred-year-old plants on record!). Unlike many other perennials, peonies don’t take easily to being moved, so you will need to make the best possible home for them.

There is one absolute rule: a peony must be planted with the pink bud (leaf bud not flower) no deeper than one to two inches below the surface of the soil. Any deeper and, although you may get a fine display of foliage, there will be no flowers.

Set the peony on a mound of soil in a generous-sized hole. Lay a long stick across the top of the hole to make it easier to see that the buds are at the right depth. With your fingers, keep adding and firming soil around the roots. Water thoroughly but not so vigorously that the plant sinks below the desired level. You may mulch for the first winter to prevent the soft soil from heaving, but after that the peony is on its own; it can take—in fact, needs—deep winter cold in order to bloom well.

Plant Peonies 1 Best Way to Plant Peonies and Poppies

Animal manures are not recommended when planting peonies because of the risk of disease, but bone meal is a valuable, slow-acting additive. A warning here: put the bone meal well down in the ground, don’t sprinkle it on the surface. Dogs love it; they think it’s an old stinky bone and once they get the scent will dig up your newly planted peony.

Those are the basics of planting as I practice it; you will no doubt develop some tricks and techniques that work for you. But there is no need to be daunted by the process. The right tools can make any planting job easier.

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