‘Perfect time’ to prune back peonies – ‘they will thrive’

Gardeners' World: Nick Bailey talks about peonies

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Knowing when to cut back peonies is among the most important things gardeners can do (after learning how to grow peonies naturally). While this flower is not too tricky to care for, it requires an annual prune for maintained health – and a prolonged lifespan that will see them blossom long into the new year. 

Kev Tara, a garden expert from LEAFnJOY said: “Let’s make one thing clear: peonies have a good chance of surviving the winter and blooming again next spring even without being pruned. 

“But just because your plants might make it to the next season – it doesn’t mean that they will thrive.” The solution? Cutting back your peonies this season.

So should peonies be pruned in autumn? According to Kev, they absolutely should. He said: “Yes, autumn is the perfect time to prune your herbaceous and Itoh peonies.

“These plants naturally die back in autumn with their leaves turning yellow and wilting.”

Kev explained that this process will help to protect the new growth that will come next year from potential pests and diseases that might be lingering in the old foliage – and allow gardeners to inspect the overall health of their plants.

Lorraine Ballato, the author of Success With Hydrangeas and resident hydrangea expert at New York Botanical Garden, agreed. She, too, urged gardeners to cut their peonies in autumn and emphasised that this process should be carried out when the foliage has yellowed. 

She explained: “That will be your main sign that the plant has finished absorbing the all-important light that feeds it for next season.”

The hydrangea expert noted that peonies should be cut back this season before winter to improve their overall health.

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However, before cutting, it is essential to note that the act may not cure some plant diseases. 

Lorraine said: “It is highly likely that by the end of the season, your peonies have acquired leaf spot disease. Most often, it is botrytis, but it could be another of these fungal issues.

“The bad news is that all fungal spores overwinter unless you are in extremely cold climates. So next season, when the conditions are right, those spores will reinfect your plant and at the least spoil the foliage.”

Usually, these fungal diseases won’t kill the flower, but they can make it more unsightly. 

“Since no part of peony is beneficial to native insects, cutting them back doesn’t deprive those insects of their winter needs,” the expert added. 

Knowing when to plant peonies (and when to cut them) is vital to the plant’s health, but how far to cut them is another significant question at this time of the year. 

Lorraine Ballato advised cutting peonies to the ground before leaving time to inspect the base of your plant. She said: “This would be a good time to pull back the mulch from the crown of the plant if it has shifted during the season.”

One of the things gardeners may not know about peonies is that if it’s planted too deeply (or the growing buds are more than two inches below ground), the plant might not flower. 

The gardening pro said: “At the least, flowering will be reduced. Those little eyes must have some sort of light, so the two inch rule works well for them.

“While you’re at it, you could inspect whatever irrigation you have for your plant. Drought conditions are likely to occur next season, so you can get a little ahead of that issue now when it is more pleasant to be working outside.”

When maintaining your autumn, it is a good idea to compost peony cuttings. However, Lorraine warned that gardeners should only compost clippings if they are disease free.

She said: “Otherwise, they should get bagged and put in the trash. You don’t want to have those fungal spores in your garden, ever.”

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