Transplant Your Peonies

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With a few important exceptions, you can plant and transplant most any plant whenever  you feel like it, year round … as long as …you are willing to go the extra mile to care for the plant through tough weather conditions, whether winter desiccation or extreme summer temperatures.

Peony is one plant that really doesn’t care when it is trans/planted; and although I really prefer to move plants in the autumn, just before or immediately after dormancy, I usually can’t get around to it because fall is exactly the time of year when my work schedule ramps up and becomes impossible.  That is why I spent this morning transplanting peonies and why  this is the perfect time to to show-n-tell our little community how I like to do it.

Now: if you’ve never before tried before, I highly recommend them. They are the perfect beginning organic gardener perennial because once you put them in, they are no mess, no smell, no fertilizing, no fooling around  whatsoever… so long as… you put them in correctly.  Correctly means full sunlight.

Brace yourselves: because I’m going to tell it like it is.  If you are serious about no-to-low chemical intervention (it doesn’t matter whether the intervention is organic or non-organic) you had better not cut sun-light corners with this plant.  Oh, I know garden books and nursery tags will tell you “full-sun/part-sun” or  “will tolerate a some shade.”  If you mean to garden cheaply and organically, then believe me when I say to you that full sun means FULL sun, or don’t fool with this plant. Wow.  I think I just channeled Grandma Juanita.

The peonies I moved today are a perfect case in point: the branch spread on my pin oak tree has become truly impressive over the twelve years I’ve been living in this house, which means it has gradually been casting a longer and longer shadow over my front yard’s full sun perennial bed.  By early summer of the past several years, I haven’t liked how the leaves on those peonies look.    I’ve had to remove and discard leaves with black spot or possibly peony anthracnose, serious fungal conditions.  This plant’s tender, fungi susceptible leaves have not been getting enough sunlight to dry up the morning dew, the spring rains, and the summer humidity.

I have been trying to dig up and give this peony away to friends, and even to enemies over the last three years because I have neither time nor money to “treat” a plant with athlete’s foot. But, no matter how carefully I dig the thing up, I keep leaving chunks of it in the ground, so it keeps coming back.

There is nothing so humiliating as telling the sho’nuff truth, but I’ve run out of friends who want plant divisions from my garden.  So even though I hate to throw away live plants, I decided to dig up  two dreadful little hybrid tea roses and to consign their sorry corpses to the spring clean-up bonfire.   I’ve got room for the peonies in the backyard now; and I am bound and determined to rescue the last bit of this perennial from the front bed where it was on its way to an unsightly, lingering decline.

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The surface of the root ball is slightly elevated above the soil line. The surface of the root ball is unchanged from this plants previous placement. This is the critical secret to successfully trans/planting the peony.

The peony is fussy in one more way: peonies hate being planted deeply. To create flowers, they need direct sunlight on little buds that form at the top of their woody root mass.  If you have a peony that juicy green leaves but never flowers, you need to dig it up, fill  the hole with more soil, and lay the root mass back down on top of the ground, so shallowly that only the bottom part of the roots are in contact with the earth,where they won’t dry out.  When you mulch your peonies you must not mulch over the top of the root mass or you will get no flowers the following year.

I like to dig a shallow nest, approximately the same shape as the root ball that comes along with the plant when you dig it up (or when you take it out of a pot if you’ve purchased it from a nursery).  I then nestle it against the soil in the shallow trench, and then build the soil up around the root ball, rather than back fill the hole with soil.  Let me break it down:

1) Dig peony any time of year, though early spring is when I like to do it,  just as soon as  I can find them under the leaf duff.  As you can see in the picture, they have the cutest, red, fiddle-head-like stems; and these  push right up through the leaves.

2) Dig a wide margin around the plant, taking as much soil around the roots as you can comfortably carry.  You want to bring the soil that is around the root ball with you, as much as you are able.

3) Choose your full sun location, then dig or scrape a shallow hole that is roughly the same shape as the root mass.

4) Nestle the bottom roots in the shallow ditch, being sure, to the best of your ability, that the lateral roots aren’t bunched up in the hole.

5) Pour water in the shallow hole  to settle the root mass against the earth and to make sure soil is in contact with all of the roots.  You may want to “rock” the plant in the wet muck to make sure the roots are well settled.

6) Cover the exposed sides of the root mass by shoving the hole’s displaced soil up the sides of the root ball.  If you are shoving the soil down on top of the root ball, you have buried the plant too deeply.

7) Water the plant in to settle the soil

8) If you like to use fertilizer (I emphatically do not), sprinkle a zero nitrogen fertilizer scantily around the root ball.

9) If you like mulch (I do but it depends on my financial situation), build a wide donut ring around the plant ball.  Do not mulch over the part of the plant that is facing the sun.  Do not do it.  Just.  Don’t.  Straight from the hip.

Be aware that you very well may not get blooms the first year that you move your peonies.    You may also get scant flowers in year two.  If you get scanty flowering in year two, fertilize them with a zero nitrogen fertilizer after they are finished blooming, and wait one more year to see if the year three bloom is more impressive.  If it is not (it probably will be) redig your peony and set it more shallowly in the ground.  Otherwise, by year three, your peony will be drop-dead-gorgeous traffic stoppers (like the ones in my garden are).  Sho’nuff!

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