Cut back peonies to the ground in the fall | The Kansas City Star

Peonies are popular in area gardens as our climate is perfect for them.

Peonies are one of the most planted flowers in the garden. A lot of you probably have peonies that belonged to a parent or a grandparent. I have several that belonged to my grandmother, and I think of her each year when they flower.

This plant thrives in our climate. It is one of the easiest and longest lasting plants to care for. There are clumps on our family farm that have not been touched for more than 50 years, yet they shine each May. In our higher maintenance city gardens a little care will help them shine a little brighter.

Garden peonies are herbaceous, which means they die back to the ground each fall. New growth emerges in the spring which culminates in the big showy flower. Peonies then spend their summer building up energy into the fleshy tubers for next season’s bloom. The green growth of the plants must remain all summer long to generate this energy.

Once the plants start to yellow or brown in the fall they should be cut to the ground. Early fall or after the first frost is the ideal time to cut back the plants. Cutting peonies in the fall helps remove foliar diseases and reduce infection next year. Simply cut all the growth off at the soil level and discard. By doing this in the fall the leaves are less likely to break apart leaving behind diseased tissue.

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Because of the plant’s growth habit, the time to divide, transplant or plant new peonies is September through October. Once fall arrives the plants have stored energy and are coasting until the close of the season. Planting in the fall allows the roots to establish in the warm fall soils. They are then ready for new growth, come spring. Peonies can remain in the garden for a number of years without the need for division. But garden layouts often change, trees mature or we just want them in a new spot.

The plant can be lifted and replanted. Keep in mind the eyes, or growing points of the tubers, should be about 2 inches below the soil surface, and that peonies do best in full sun. New plants can be purchased at local garden centers or through mail order.

Much work has been done in peony breeding with new colors and stockier plants. Many of the old fashioned peonies have long, weak stems. This means the flowers flop when in full bloom due to the weight. The newer hybrids tend to be shorter with thick stems helping to hold the blooms upright.

Enjoy this beautiful stretch of weather and get out in the garden. It is time to start the fall cleanup and even add a little more color to the garden.

Autumn tips for peonies

Winter is coming and there are lots of jobs to keep the gardener busy: raking leaves, collecting seed, dividing plants and generally tidying up. For those of us with peony plants in the garden, there is slightly less to do and more time to enjoy the pleasures of autumn.

For me, the highlight of the summer is when peonies are in full, majestic flower (late April to June). But as the summer comes to an end, the peony’s foliage unfailingly brings unexpected pleasure and interest.

Peonies for autumn colour

Herbaceous peonies that die down completely in winter have the strongest autumnal colour. The intersectional varieties (such as Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’) provide a strong, dignified show of orange, red, green and purple foliage while the remainder of the garden is in decline.

Some of the earlier flowering varieties (such as Paeonia ‘Rubra Plena’ or Paeonia ‘Coral Charm’) may start to change colour and die off in early August. Tree peonies (for example, Paeonia ‘High Noon’) can be equally impressive before they too lose their large, divided leaves, leaving their woody stems nobly standing proud in the flower beds. Even as the peony dies down for the winter, it does so gracefully, reminding us of its status as an pre-eminent garden plant and of its flowering glory in summer.

The fleeting elegance of the peony’s big, blousy blooms may lead some to assume the plant is delicate and in need of protection from the harshness of winter. This is not the case. Peonies will survive the harshest English winter (they are hardy to about -20C) and actually flower better following a cold winter.

Peonies have been grown in the UK since the fifteenth century and are a firm favourite in the English garden. They are long-lived plants that demand little from the gardener. Some will live happily for 100 years, each year getting stronger and flowering more profusely. Peonies generally suffer little from pests and disease.

Top autumn tips for peonies

  • Herbaceous peonies may look like they are dying above ground, but they’re in fact working very hard beneath the ground. Flowering buds for the next year will be developing and growing so avoid cutting them back until late October/early November. Then, cut them back to about 2.5cm. This helps prevent potential disease (such as peony wilt) in the spring. Burn or dispose of the dead foliage to avoid spreading disease.
  • Peonies thrive in most soil types and do especially well in clay or heavy soils, provided that the soil does not get waterlogged in winter. If you have a lighter soil, consider feeding with bonemeal or a general well-balanced fertiliser.
  • Autumn’s the ideal time to split and move well-established herbaceous peonies, despite the widely held view that peonies don’t like being moved. Move your peony in late October/early November. Be careful not to damage the roots by taking as big a clump as possible, ensuring you have at least 3-5 ‘eyes’ or buds. Dig a large enough hole to accommodate the roots and add some organic matter. Remember not to plant it too deep– the crown of the root should be no more than 2.5-5cm below the surface– and allow your peony time to settle in its new position. Given a peony’s substantial lifespan of the peony, allowing it a season to settle down is a small price to pay.

More autumn tips for peonies

  • Autumn is the best time of year to plant bare-root peonies. Remember to buy a good-quality bare-root peony for best results. The mother plants will be lifted from the fields in September/October and split, so if you see bare-roots for sale earlier in the year, exercise caution! They may have been sitting in cold storage and could be deteriorating. Look for bare-roots with at least 3-5 ‘eyes’ or buds and remember to plant them with the crown no more that 2.5-5cm below the surface.
  • Tree peonies rarely require pruning but from time to time it may be necessary. Autumn’s the ideal time to give tree peonies a light prune. They generally respond well to a trim. To encourage a better growth habit, cut back the older stems to about 2.5cm or, if in doubt, cut back every third stem. This will produce a bushier plant. Equally, you could lightly trim to just above the season’s new growth to keep your tree peony looking neat and tidy. Pruning in autumn may mean fewer flowers in spring, but this is a temporary sacrifice for a stronger, healthier plant in the long-term.

Though it may seem as if the arrival of winter is killing off your garden peonies, bear in mind this deathly, above-ground appearance is a defence against winter. Your peonies are working hard to develop flower buds for next year and welcome the cold weather. And, as winter fades, they will emerge victorious; stronger and with more blooms than ever.

For more advice from Alec, see his three rules for growing perfect peonies.

Peonies & Tree Peonies

Cutting Flower Buds:
To enjoy the blooms of Herbaceous Peonies later in the summer, cut the buds just before they open on stems about 6 inches long. Lightly wet the inside of a large, resealable plastic bag, and place the buds inside. Close the bag and place it in your refrigerator (not the freezer). Later take out the buds you need and float them in a shallow bowl of water. When bud is about 1/3 open, lift it, then cut the stem to 1 1/2 inches long and refloat the bud.

Peonies flower with Roses and Clematis and are lovely with many other perennials; be sure to leave room around the plants for air circulation. White-flowered Peonies are entrancing against a background of evergreens. Spring-flowering bulbs such as Crocus vernus or Scilla siberica create a pleasing color contrast at the feet of emerging Herbaceous Peonies stems, which are often reddish.

Many varieties make several side buds that will open after the terminal bloom flowers, so deadheading is beneficial. After each flower is finished, cut the stem underneath the old bloom, leaving the foliage alone. If exhibition-sized flowers are desired, remove the side buds as they form and leave only the terminal bud.

Generally Herbaceous Peonies do not need dividing and some resent it. However, if you must move an established plant you need to divide it before replanting. Do this in the fall, after all foliage has died back completely. Each division should have three to five eyes, and it will usually take a couple of years for the new plants to flower.

End of Season Care:
Foliage of Herbaceous Peonies should be cut back in the fall and removed from the premises to discourage overwintering of pests. Mulch new plants with evergreen boughs or salt marsh hay after the ground freezes.

Calendar of Care

Early Spring: Water plantings well if spring rains don’t do it for you. Side dress Herbaceous Peonies with compost or aged manure. If botrytis blight was present the previous season, cover ground around plant with a thin (one-quarter inch) layer of sand and spray new shoots with Bordeaux mix or lime sulphur. Set stakes or other supports in place now.
Mid-Spring: Watch for signs of botrytis blight and treat as needed, removing any diseased tissue immediately. Train through plant supports as plants grow. Remove side buds if exhibition-size blooms are desired.
Late Spring: Deadhead Peonies religiously and remove all fallen petals or blooms from the garden.
Summer: Herbaceous Peonies do best with an inch of water a week.
Fall: Cut stems of Herbaceous Peonies back to soil level and remove from the area. Dig and divide plants now if necessary. Mulch new plantings with evergreen boughs or salt marsh hay after the ground freezes.

Tree Peony Growing Tips

Tree Peony – How to Care for Your Plant
Tree Peonies need some time to settle in before they bloom; it’s not unusual for a plant to wait until its third spring before it flowers. In addition, Tree Peonies are often slow to break dormancy the first spring after planting. Your plant may look dead while its neighbors are springing to life, but it will awaken soon enough.

Light shade from hot afternoon sun is necessary to protect the flowers, and in China and Japan small parasols are set over the plants to block the sun. Plant Tree Peonies where they will be protected against drying winds in summer and winter. Tree Peonies are very drought tolerant once established. Do not overwater and do not plant near an automatic irrigation system. Wait until the soil has dried down to four inches before watering deeply. Watering too much will kill the roots and is a common reason for failure.

Fertilizer/Soil and pH:
Tree Peonies need a well-drained soil with a pH close to neutral or a bit above. If your soil is acid, add a few handfuls of lime at planting time. Plant at the depth indicated by the green plastic ribbon wrapped around the main stem, and remove the ribbon after setting the plant at the right depth. If the ribbon has gone astray, plant the top of the graft union (which appears as a bulge on the main stem) about four to six inches below the surface of the soil to encourage the scion to form its own roots. Topdress plants in spring with an inch of compost or aged manure. A foliar feeding with fish emulsion is appreciated during the growing season.

On rare occasions, a boring insect may make a hole in the woody stem of a Tree Peony. You may be able to kill the larva in the tunnel using a thin wire, or simply cut out the affected area. Like Herbaceous Peonies, Tree Peonies are occasionally afflicted with fungal diseases that cause black spots on leaves and wilting of shoots. Remove any diseased foliage as soon as noticed and be sure to clean up all fallen plant parts in the autumn. If fungal diseases become a problem, spray with a fungicide early in spring, repeating the treatments for several weeks. Be diligent with deadheading and do not allow fallen petals to remain caught in the plant or on the ground.

Hellebores, Alchemilla, Leucojum, Epimedium and Siberian Irises are all lovely in combination with Tree Peonies. If your plants tend toward legginess, underplant with spring-flowering bulbs.

Never prune Tree Peonies back to the ground as is done with their herbaceous relatives. Prune out any damaged or broken stems after plants leaf out. Once your plant has some age and is growing vigorously, you may want to open up the center a bit to encourage flowering on the taller stems and increase air circulation. Tree Peonies are grafted onto Herbaceous Peony roots and occasionally a shoot from the rootstock will arise from the base of the plant. These should be removed immediately.

Tree Peonies do not need to be divided, and with many plants this is impossible. Young plants may be moved when dormant; dig the plant keeping as much soil around the roots as possible.

End-of-Season Care:
Remove all foliage from Tree Peonies after a killing frost, including leaf petioles; discard away from your garden area, not in the compost pile. New plants should be mulched, and in the coldest areas should be wrapped with burlap or another material to protect from winter winds.

Calendar of Care

Early Spring: Topdress plants with an inch of compost or aged manure. Watch for signs of fungal disease and treat as needed. If a shoot arises from the rootstock, remove it.
Mid-Spring: Some Tree Peony varieties may need support for the heavy flowers. If the interior of the plant is crowded with foliage, thin it out to improve air circulation.
Late Spring: Do not overwater. Be diligent with deadheading spent blossoms and remove old flowers and petals from the garden.
Summer: Only water plants when soil dries out to a depth of four inches, and then water deeply. Foliar feeding with fish emulsion is appreciated.
Fall: Do not prune Tree Peonies back; they are woody shrubs. Remove all foliage after frost, but do not compost. Mulch new plants and those grown in the colder zones, and if cold winter winds are expected, wrap plants with burlap or other protective material.

This shrub is deciduous so it will lose all its leaves in autumn, then fresh new foliage appears again each spring.

  • Position: full sun or partial shade
  • Soil: fertile, moisture-retentive yet well-drained
  • Rate of growth: vigorous
  • Flowering period: April to May
  • Hardiness: fully hardy
    Tree peonies are the Chinese national flower and they have been cultivated for more than 1,500 years. Their handsome foliage and enormous flowers, which can grow up to 15cm across, make them an excellent choice for a sunny (or lightly shaded) border. The vivid pink blooms that this one produces will mix well with purple and lialc, softer pinks and plum.
    This tree paeonia is between 1 and 2 years old. It has been field grown and was immediately potted up in late autumn into a 2 litre pot. It may not have a well developed root system just yet (hence we describe them as bareroot), so you should not worry if the soil falls away when planting out.
  • Garden care: Protect from cold winds and early morning sun. Support the branches of young trees with canes. In early spring apply a top-dressing of a balanced, slow release fertiliser around the base of the plant and mulch well with well-rotted garden compost or manure. The older stems of tree peonies have a tendency to become brittle and snap, so cut these back to the ground in autumn every two or three years.

Tree Peonies

“The secret is Lime – and plenty of it”, says Ron. While most Australian soils are fairly acidic, at around 6 – 6.5 ph, tree peonies evolved in the poor, limestone based soils of north-western China, and prefer a much more alkaline soil. Ron says that to get the best results from your peonies you should first add 8-10 handfuls of dolomite lime to the planting hole, which will ensure vigorous growth and healthy stems for many years.

Tree peonies bear large flowers in profusion on small, compact bushes that grow to a maximum height of around a metre, depending on variety. Try using contrasting colours, such as yellows with black-reds and purples. The flowers can be cut and will keep in water for several days, and look great as a table centrepiece when floated on a bowl of water like a waterlily flower. Growing a mix of tree peony varieties will ensure a mix of flowers over a long period. Tree peonies can also be grown in tubs, but it is important to note that most commercially available potting mixes are fairly acidic and therefore require copious amounts of lime to be added before planting.

Ron recommends keeping the plant in its pot until about April, then planting it in a well-drained soil that has had the addition of dolomite lime. Plant your tree peonies in a position that receives morning sun, as the flowers will last longer if there is protection from harsh afternoon sun. A surface mulch will help to keep the roots cool. Apply the mulch around the root zone, allowing space around the crown for your peony to grow. Remove dead leaves as they fall in the autumn, taking care not to damage the buds on the main plant. Tree peonies are fairly drought tolerant, but if you keep the water up to tree peonies, especially during flowering, you will help to promote healthy growth. When plants reach several years of age you may start to notice some yellowing of the leaves, if this occurs an application of a few more handfuls of lime around the top of the soil is required.

Grown for Australian Conditions

Ron Boekel’s success with tree peonies has come through many years of trial and error, and when you purchase a tree peony grown by Ron, you know you are getting a plant that has been grown to flourish in Australian conditions. Ron has concentrated on growing the more spectacular Japanese and American Lutea varieties, developing his techniques all the while. Although the American and European growers have resorted to grafting their peonies, Ron has concentrated his efforts into developing plants able to grow healthily on their own rootstock.

Provided you follow the simple growing directions, which you’ll receive free with each tree peony purchased, you should have no problems with any of the varieties he grows. Ron divides his plants in June, and as with the grafted magnolias he produces, he insists on doing every division himself. The divisions are sorted into three sizes, with the largest being marked for sale early in the season, the medium sized divisions are grown on until late in the season and the smallest being held over for twelve months before sale. This ensures that every plant is well established for sale before it reaches the nursery.

Tree Peony terms

Single Flower

Single to Semi-Double Flower

Full Double Flower

Japanese, European And American Tree Peony Varieties

Tree Peonies differ from the more commonly grown herbaceous peonies in that they don’t die down each winter, instead shedding their leaves back to woody stems that survive the winter. The other major difference between the two is that tree peonies have a much larger range of flower colours to choose from. Tree Peonies can be split into three distinctive groups, the Japanese, European and American Lutea hybrids, each with their own unique attributes. The most finicky are the larger flowered Japanese varieties, which flower first in mid-spring. They have broad, divided leaves and generally have been bred to produce single or semi-double flowers.

The next to flower are the similar European hybrids. Their flower colours range from pure white to subtle shadings of pink, rose, cherry, purple, salmon, maroon, scarlet and red, and they differ from the Japanese varieties in that they have mostly been bred to produce full double flowers. In the autumn the leaves often turn to shades of scarlet, coral and bronze before falling in the winter. Popular Japanese hybrids include ‘Destiny’, a large single to semi double white flower with purple-mauve blotches, and ‘Rimpo’, a very large single to semi-double flowered variety of rich magenta-purple with black inner flares and gold anthers. European varieties worth noting include ‘Ettienne de France’, which has fragrant double lilac-pink blooms and was one of the first introductions to Australia, and the equally exquisite ‘Kinshe’, a stunning double yellow flower edged with apricot-red.

The later flowering American Lutea varieties are generally easier to grow, and although the flowers are usually slightly smaller than the Japanese varieties, they more than make up for it with a vivid range of colours including bold oranges, black-reds and yellow. The foliage is also more finely divided and spectacular autumn colour. ‘Black Panther’ is a beautiful double black-red flowering variety with attractive foliage, while ‘Happy Days’ has semi-double blooms of yellow suffused with rosy-red on a tall, attractive bush.

Peonies do all their growing and food storage during the coldest months of the year. While the ground is cold or even frozen during winter, the peonies are happily sending roots out and storing energy for the summer. Once the leaves have emerged and flowering has begun, the roots become dormant. By the time the harsh heat of summer arrives the plant can survive on stored energy. What this means is that an NPK fertiliser and Ferrous Sulphate (iron), which peonies love, should be applied during the four coldest months of the year.

Ron’s Recommendations for Australian Gardens

Japanese / European

Ettiene de France
lilac-pink, very large double, fragrant
Large single to semi double white with deep purple blotches. Early flowering.
Fully doubled suffused orange red, very hardy
Very large double yellow tipped and edged apricot-red. Very hardy, good cut flowers.
Le’ Esperance
Very vigorous & hardy. Medium size bright yellow with red inner flares.
(no photo yet)
Very large single to semi double. Magenta-purple with black inner flares.
(no photo yet)


Large single to semi double black-red, prominent gold centre.
Age of Gold
Vigorous, bright yellow doubles held upright, bright orange autumn foliage.
Happy Days
Yellow semi-double suffused with rosy red. Yellow underside.
Black Panther
Very rare, limited numbers. Double dark mahogany-crimson.
Medium single deep crimson with black top, finely cut foliage.
(no photo yet)

Peonies available this season

Age of Gold Destiny Ettiene de France Flambeau
Happy Days Kinshe Alice Harding Le Esperance
(no photos yet)
Marchioness Vesuvian Argosy Rimpo Thunderbolt
Plus 4 new varieties from Ron (photos coming soon!)
Has a semi double strawberry red flower
A a semi double crimson hybrid.
A a beautiful single black flower with yellow anthers.
A splendid red wine fused with ivory.

Tree Peonies are generally available for sale by order from Chris & Marie’s Plant Farms. To order a particular variety, please email or call us first, as some varieties are in limited supply.

Chris & Marie’s Plant Farms has a selection of Ron Boekel’s Tree Peonies in stock now 10″ pots for $49.50.

The term Tree Peony is a little confusing as it seems to describe a plant that grows to the height of a tree, which it does not. The main difference between Tree Peonies and their herbaceous cousins is that Tree peonies don’t die back in winter. After the leaves have dropped in late autumn a scaffolding of woody stems remains. For this reason they should more aptly be called Shrubby or Woody Peonies. The other difference is that the flowers and leaves are much bigger than herbaceous peonies and, until recently, they were the only peonies to produce truly yellow flowers.

Where To Grow

Flowering between late May to mid June, all peonies like to be grown in a sunny spot, in well-drained soil. This includes a clay soil as long as it is not permanently wet. They can be grown in a pot as long as the pot is a very large. Replenish the soil in the pot every few years and make sure the plant is watered frequently early in the growing season. As a general rule the lack of water in spring and too little sunlight are the main reasons peonies don’t flower, while too much fertiliser can create lots of leaves and very few flowers.


Tree Peonies are very hardy and long lived plants. They can be left undisturbed for many years, but the method of planting is important with grafted varieties (see below). Make sure the grafting junction is at least 15cm below the surface of the soil. This prevents the grafting stock from taking over. In autumn cut back the old leaves and prune any dead stems back to a new flower bud. If a stem is too big or the plant is a funny shape it can be pruned to a lower bud.


There are three basic types of Tree Peonies. The most readily available are the substantial Paeonia delavayii types, which are only suitable for bigger gardens. Paeonia delayavii produces small, very dark red, single flowers that tend to hide in the leaves. There are two yellow forms; P. delavayii var. delavayii lutea with small, single flowers and P. ludlowii, with bigger yellow flowers. As these are raised from seed they sometime cross and the resulting blooms can open beautiful shades of apricot and melon.

Chinese Tree Peonies

The most ancient Tree Peonies are those that come from China. Paeonia rockii is a well-known plant of Chinese origin, but the Chinese have been hybridising Tree Peonies for centuries. Highly regarded as garden plants, they were grown in the gardens of emperors as well as for medicine. The Victorians imported Tree Peonies from China into Britain, but although they were never in great demand the trade stopped with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and ’70’s. With the opening up of China in the late 1990’s more have been coming into Europe. However, as they originate from northern China, which has a more extreme climate than Britain, I have found they don’t flourish and often fail to flower in our relatively warm, wet climate. The other draw back of is that they hide their beautiful flowers because they are so big and heavy the blooms often hang downwards.

Japanese Tree Peonies

The Japanese Tree Peony corrects many of these issues. The glamorous flowers are single or semi-double and produced on a graceful, open shrub. In height they grow no taller than 120cm high, often less, making them suitable for smaller gardens. There is one downside and that is they can start into growth much earlier in spring than other peonies. The buds fatten rapidly on warm days, especially in February. This makes them prone to frost damage which causes the flower bud to shrivel and turn brown. So if you want to grow a Japanese Tree Peony, and these are the unnamed ones you tend find in garden centres, plant it out of from a frost pocket.

Lutea Hybrids

The third and most beautiful type, but one that is sadly the rarest, are the Tree Peonies raised by American A. P. Saunders during the middle of the twentieth century. These are known as Lutea Hybrids. They are crosses between specie and named peonies. The resulting plants grow to between 90cm and 120cm high, flower during June with blooms that face upwards and come in range of tones that varies from soft yellow to richest red. Like almost all Tree Peonies these propagated by grafting, a technique that needs much skill. For this reason many Tree Peonies are difficult to find and if you do find them they can be rather expensive.

How to Ruin Your Peony in Two Minutes

Starting in autumn will give you a leg up. “We dig and ship peony plants in the fall because they’ll grow better in that first year if they have had the benefit of being in the soil during the winter,” says Van Staalduinen. Juliette Wade/Getty Images

It has come to the Grump’s attention that many of you love, love, love peonies. You think about them night and day and worry yourselves sick about their health and welfare. You want to know if the care you’re giving them will encourage the production of gargantuan, fragrant flowers again next year with which to torture your jealous neighbors. Thus, I thought you’d be interested in the following question I just received from Ellen in Boaz, Alabama.

“I have some peonies I transplanted from my mom’s house,” she writes. “They are over 50 years old and beautiful when in bloom. They’re not so pretty after the blooms are gone, though. Can I trim down the foliage now?”

Grumpy’s heart just skipped a beat. No, Helen, you cannot! Don’t even think about trimming your peony’s now! If you do, you will get no flowers next year, and that would be a terrible way to thank your mother.

WATCH: Learn the Right Time to Prune

You see, what the leaves do all summer is soak in the sun’s rays and convert that energy into food reserves for the peony. It takes a lot of reserves to produce the dozens of eye-popping blooms you’ve come to expect. Peony foliage needs to bask in full sun from spring until fall. Cut off that foliage beforehand and a bodacious bloomer becomes a flowerless flop.

Put away those pruners for now. Wait until the leaves yellow in fall. That’s your sign that the peony’s larder is fully stocked and it’s OK to trim. Throw out the foliage with the trash to make sure it doesn’t harbor diseases and insects over the winter.

Whew, that was a close one, Ellen! What will you do with the two minutes I saved you? Read another funny story in my new book, The Grumpy Gardener? That’s a very wise decision.

Szerlag: When to cut back the peonies


To cut or not to cut — that’s the question lots of gardeners ask when it’s time to put the garden to bed.

When it comes to old-fashioned peonies, the answer hasn’t changed during the years — cut herbaceous peonies back to 3 to 4 inches in height when the leaves lose their luster and turn color. Because peonies are prone to diseases such as leaf spot, all the refuse should be tossed in the trash. Putting the leaves in the compost bin risks the spread of disease. After cleaning up around the peony, you may choose to mulch with 3 to 4 inches of organic material. However, take care not to pile it directly on the plant as the soil level may increase and bury the eyes too deep, preventing them from flowering in the future. The red- or white-tipped eyes should remain 1 to 1½ inches below ground level.

Tree peonies often hold their leaves long after the deciduous trees have dropped theirs. When the peony leaves color up and begin to fall, carefully remove the dead leaves without breaking branches or damaging buds and clean up around the plant. These leaves should also go into the trash. Cutting back the stems would result in loss of flowers in late spring. They too can be mulched with 3 to 4 inches of organic material, but take care to keep it from touching the plant’s trunk.

Intersectional peonies, those that are a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies, should also have their leaves removed once they begin to fall. They are then pruned back by removing just the soft green stems. The hard, woody portion of the stem or trunk is left in place. A mature intersectional peony will have a stem of 4 to 5 inches of hardwood above ground. If you are in doubt as to what to remove, the peony pros at Peony’s Envy ( suggest leaving your plant untouched the first winter and take note what is left in spring.

According to Peony’s Envy, all peonies are exceptionally hardy and don’t need a lot of winter protection. However, mulching with organic materials helps keep newly planted peonies from heaving over the winter and enriches the soil of established plants.

Timely tip: To extend the life of your carved pumpkin, use clean instruments, spray inside and out with an anti-transpirant, such as Bonide’s Wilt Stop, put it in the garage if a hard frost threatens and light it with a flashlight.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question, go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at

At Cricket Hill Garden, we have long specialized in Chinese tree peonies. We have a preference for these because overall we find Chinese tree peonies to be more diverse in form, color and fragrance than their Japanese cousins. That said, any gardener with an interest in tree peonies cannot help but admire the open flower forms, upright growth habit and vibrant colors which characterize Japanese tree peonies.

There is no species of tree peony native to Japan. Historians date the arrival of the tree peonies (known as Botan in Japanese) in Japan to the 8th century CE. Historians agree that it was Buddhist monks, whether Chinese or Japanese is a matter of dispute, that were responsible for transporting tree peonies to Japan. In this context, tree peonies were not seen as an ornamental garden plant, but rather as an important medicinal plant. Tree peonies were part of the great flow of goods and ideas from China to Japan.

Some accounts credit the great Buddhist monk and scholar Kōbō-Daishiwith initially introducing tree peonies to Japan.

Over the next few hundred years, tree peonies were planted in temple and court gardens as ornamental plants, but it was not until the Edo period (1603 to 1868) that their cultivation became widespread. The advent of grafting as the main propagation technique during this period is largely responsible for the rapid spread of tree peony cultivation. The main center of cultivation and propagation became the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto as well as the western coastal prefectures ofNiigata and Shimane.

Peonies at Hyakken – this 1866 woodblock print by Utagawa Shigenobu depicts the tree peonies at a famous public garden in Tokyo.

Viewing the tree peonies in Tokyo. Hand-colored photograph, circa 1910.

As in China, tree peonies in Japan carry significant cultural symbolism. When depicted in visual art and poetry, tree peonies in Japan represent good fortune as well as a righteous and noble spirit.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Japanese tree peonies began to appear in western European botanical gardens. By the 1890s, several large nurseries based in Japan were exporting large quantities of tree peonies to both Europe and the United States.

The Yokohama Nursery was know for its large selection of tree peonies, irises and lilies. This nursery exported to the United States from the early 1900s until the eve of World War 2.

A close-up from a beautifully printed Yokohama Nursery catalog, circa 1920. The varieties shown are, from left to right, “Peak of Mt. Fuji” 富士の峰 Fuji-no-mime “Peak of Mt. Fuji” and “Kasane Lion” 重ね獅子 Kasane-jishi.

A little aside: For those who think that tree peonies are expensive, consider that a vintage catalog from Yokohama nursery costs $5,500 from a rare book dealer. Real Japanese tree peonies, priced on our website starting at $79 are cheap by comparison!

From their first introduction into the United States over one hundred years ago, there has been much confusion amongst nursery professionals and collectors regarding the correct identification of Japanese tree peonies. In his 1962 book,The Peonies, the grower John C. Wister gave vent to this frustration:

“Our troubles have been by the carelessness or unscrupulousness of some Japanese nurseryman. The principle exporters of the 1910-1925 era would sell a collection of fifty varieties with fifty different labels and all but two or three plants would prove identical. The same firm would send fifty plants of one special white variety and the flowers would bloom pink, scarlet, and purple.”

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved much since, imported Japanese tree peonies continue to be chronically mislabeled. True to name or not, Japanese tree peonies were important to the tree peony hybridzation done by breeders such as Prof. Arthur Saunders and Nassos Daphnis. These great hybridizers crossed Japanese tree peonies with the species tree peony P. lutea to create the beautiful yellow and apricot tree peonies such as High Noon and Marchioness.

Some cultivars of Japanese tree peonies developed in the 19th century are still in commerce today. As more propagation of Japanese tree peonies is done in the United States the issue of mislabeling has become less severe. At Cricket Hill Garden we guarantee that all of the Japanese tree peonies we sell are true to name. Below are some of our favorite Japanese tree peony cultivars.

‘Eternal Camellias‘ Yachiyo tsubaki 八千代椿 is a very reliable grower and bloomer.

‘Joy of Longevity’ 島根長壽樂 Shimane Chojuraku is a cultivar from the famous peony growing island of Shimane.

‘Black Dragon Brocade‘ Kokuryu nisjiki is a very dark and highly prized cultivar.

‘Seven Gods of Good Fortune‘ Shin Shichifukujin is one of our most vibrant dark pink Japanese tree peonies.

‘The Sun‘ Taiyo this is perhaps the brightest red tree peony in our entire collection.

In both flower form and growth habit, Japanese tree peonies tend to share a number of morphological traits. This uniformity is probably a result of rather limited genetic heritage of Japanese tree peonies as well as the aesthetic decision made by Japanese peony growers. The shared characteristics of Japanese tree peonies tend to be: large blooms, 8-12” in diameter, upward facing, open semi-double flower forms, and though often less fragrant than Chinese tree peonies, the colors are extremely vibrant. Most shrubs reach 4′ tall and wide at maturity. Japanese tree peonies are more upright and less bushy than Chinese counterparts. The leaves are deeply dissected and many have a purplish green tint.

This plant well illustrates the tendency of Japanese tree peonies to grow in a upright, and not bushy, manner.

There are some notable exceptions to the rule that most Japanese tree peonies are semi-double. A few varieties are fine doubles while there is a whole subset of semi-double flowers which is know as jishi or lion form. There flowers are said to have the look of the tousled, unkempt main of a lion.

‘King of Flowers‘ 花王 Kao is a rare Japanese tree peony which blooms in a fully double form.

‘Monitor of the Palace at Sunrise’ Fusotsukasa is another double form Japanese tree peony.

‘White Jade Lion’ 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the ‘lion’s main’ form.

In our experience, the majority of Japanese tree peonies are mid-season blooming, flowering after our Chinese tree peonies but before the lutea hybrids. The peak bloom for Japanese tree peonies at Cricket Hill Garden is usually around June 1st.

A bed of Japanese tree peonies in full bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

There is an interesting subsection of Japanese tree peonies known as Kan Botanor ‘Winter Blooming’ tree peonies. This type of tree peony blooms in the spring, and then, depending on the variety, re-blooms from November to January. The flowers in the winter are much smaller and the plant only produces a few leaves. These unique cultivars are said to date to the 1700s.

Winter blooming tree peonies are protected by straw mats in Japan. This photo show a tree peony blooming in a Tokyo park in December!

Winter Blooming tree peonies seems to have been developed to suit the unique climates of certain areas of Japan. We do not know of any growers who have successfully cultivated Kan Botan here in the United States.

This great video shows winter blooming peonies at a flower garden that is part of a Shinto Shrine, Hakozaki Shrine in Fukuoka City, Kyushu, Japan.

In the 20th century, Japanese plant hybridizers such as Toichi Itoh were the first to successfully cross a tree peony with a herbaceous peony, creating a third type of peony known as an intersectional peonies.

Lastly a word on herbaceous peonies. The vast majority of herbaceous peonies are also not native to Japan.

The one exception is the early blooming Paeonia japonica.

As in China, herbaceous peonies are not held in quite as high esteem as tree peonies in Japan.

In America, anemone form herbaceous peonies are often referred to as ‘Japanese’ form, most likely because the first herbaceous peonies to flower in this form were initially imported from Japan.


For an ornamental highlight from late spring to early summer, fill your garden beds and borders with the luscious blossoms of perennial peony.

The peony, or Paeonia genus is the only one in the Paeoniaceae family of plants. There are 33 species native to Asia, Europe, and North America. Today’s many cultivars and hybrids are suitable for USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 8. Most are fragrant, and all make sumptuous cut flowers to enjoy in vase arrangements.


There are herbaceous, tree, and intersectional varieties from which to choose.


An herbaceous peony is one that dies down to the ground at the end of the season, goes through a period of dormancy, and returns the following year. There are two wild species that grow in the western United States: P. brownii and P. californica.

Cultivar Herbaceous Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ has been a favorite of peony lovers for over 100 years.

For home gardeners, there are the common garden variety, aka Chinese peony, P. lactiflora, and the common peony, aka garden peony, P. officinalis. They are shrubby plants that reach a height and diameter of about three feet.

In addition, there’s the fern leaf type, P. tenuifolia. It’s named for its feathery foliage and tops out at about two feet. It’s smaller stature and flowers make it suitable for rock garden planting.

Fern Leaf Peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) has feathery foliage, small blossoms, and a low profile.

At various times from late spring to summer, the herbaceous varieties begin as reddish shoots that rise from tuberous roots. Leaves are dark green and leathery, often turning to blazing shades of bronze and red in autumn. Flowers in a rainbow of colors may be comprised of single, double, or semi-double layers of petals that are often fringed or two-toned.

Deadheading blossoms encourages new growth. After flowering, the foliage makes an exceptionally rich backdrop for a succession of bed and border plantings.


Per Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, tree varieties are derived mainly from two species, P. suffruticosa and P. delavayi. Like herbaceous types, flowers come in an array of colors. The foliage is also dark green and leathery, often turning bronze or red in autumn, but instead of dying back, the woody stems drop their leaves and remain bare and above ground all winter.

Moutan Tree Peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) has woody stems and enormous blossoms.

Tree types grow more slowly than herbaceous cultivars and hybrids, and some reach over six feet tall and five feet wide at maturity. They are known for being the earliest bloomers of the season.

Moutan Tree Peony (Paeonia rockii) has exquisite golden stamens.

Tree cultivars are generally found under the species name P. suffructicosa, or ‘Moutan,’ (Chinese mǔdān). An exception to this is P. rockii, or Rock’s peony, named for Austrian botanist Joseph Rock.


This final category of Paeonia is also referred to as the ‘Itoh Hybrids,’ named for their creator, Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh. Each is a cross between herbaceous and tree varieties that yield the best of both worlds, reaching about three feet in height and dying to the ground at season’s end, but with the giant flowers typical of tree types.

Intersectional Itoh hybrid ‘Bartzella’ is prized for its yellow color.

Per Ted Griess, Extension Horticulture Assistant at the Nebraska Extension, a mature Itoh hybrid may produce over 50 dinner-plated sized blossoms on stems so sturdy, no staking is required. They are late bloomers that flower continuously for up to three weeks.

Peonies have been prized in Asia for centuries, for their applications in herbal medicine as well as their ornamental beauty.

A Note on Petals

We’ve mentioned that blossoms may be have a single, double, or semi-double flower structure. Within these broad categories are fine distinctions that have been achieved by breeders who mastermind cultivars and hybrids.

Blooms may be single, double, or semi-double structured.

You may find additional descriptions like ‘Japanese,’ ‘anemone,’ and ‘bomb.’ In additional to petal structure, they reference characteristics like the visibility of stamens. I recommend contacting an organization such as the American Peony Society to pursue the peony to this degree.

Cultivating a Classic

While peonies may be grown from seed, this is usually the domain of botanists. For home gardeners, it’s usually bare rootstock or potted plants, and the time to plant is usually in the fall, although some varieties can be spring-planted.

The bare rootstock of Paeonia ready to plant.

Choose a location that gets about six hours of sun a day. If you live in a warm climate, some afternoon shade is good, especially for light-colored blossoms prone to fading, and single-flower varieties. If you’ve ever traveled to an Asian botanical garden, you may have seen clever ways to partially shade prized plants with parasols and wicker tents.

For a full season of blossoms, consider planting three types: early spring- herbaceous, mid-spring trees, and late-blooming intersectionals.

You’ll need organically-rich soil, so amend with compost as needed. Be sure that it drains well, because the tuberous roots of Paeonia will become saturated and prone to rotting if they sit in standing water.

Allow for a mature width of about three feet for herbaceous and intersectionals, and four to five for tree types. While it may take years to achieve such stature, you’ll be glad you planned for it from day one. Plants that are too crowded don’t get good air circulation and become vulnerable to disease, pests, and rotting.

Prepare your soil by working it into a friable, or crumbly consistency down to about 12 inches. I like to mix in some granules of a slow-acting organic fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. Now, here’s the key to success: place rootstock with the bud shoots, or “eyes” are no more than two inches below the soil surface. For potted plants, place to a depth that allows the top of the pot soil to be equal to the ground level.

Gently pack earth around the rootstock to stabilize it, and make sure to leave no air pockets underneath. Tamp down gently and water. Tamp down again. Water generously as the growing season begins.

Fresh spring foliage.

In the first year, foliage is the main attraction, forming a dark green, texturally appealing backdrop that showcases other garden specimens. By autumn, the leaves of some tree varieties will blaze red or bronze before dropping. Herbaceous and intersectionals may do the same before the entire plants succumb to the first frost and seem to melt away. Remove all wilted foliage at this point.

In colder regions, you may want to apply a thin layer of mulch around the tree roots and over herbaceous and intersectional locations. However, use caution, as mulch encourages water retention, and in an unusually wet winter, you may rot your roots.

In addition, you may want to mark the locations of plants that die to the ground so that when spring comes you don’t accidentally step on their new shoots. By the second year, you may have your first blossoms.

Paeonia takes time to establish, but left undisturbed, it pushes deep roots into the earth. You may divide herbaceous and intersectionals in the fall as you would other tuberous perennials, however, plants may be shocked by the experience, and may not produce flowers the following year. Tree types may be propagated by grafting.

Once your plants are underway and blooming prolifically, take the time to deadhead spent blossoms to encourage even more blooming, and cut stems to enjoy indoors in vase arrangements.

Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Each spring, as the growing season gets underway, give your plants a dose of slow-acting organic granular fertilizer with a low nitrogen content. Too much nitrogen may result in too many leaves and too few flowers.

In addition, for tree types, now is the time to snip off any tiny shoots growing up from the rootstock. Most trees are grafted, so the rootstock is seldom the same as what you are cultivating above ground. This is also a good time to prune away any dead woody branches, or those that misfigure an attractive, compact shape.

For all plants, maintain even moisture during the growing season to achieve optimal development and blooming.

A complaint often heard by newbie peony growers is that the flowers droop. I know from experience that heavy double-flower varieties saturated with rainwater do hang their heads low. Help them out with a simple fix: a hoop support.

You might like this 18-inch style available on Amazon. Simply place it in the ground over your sprouting herbaceous varieties and it will be there to lend support as they grow. Intersectional varieties do not generally require staking.

In addition to the unhappy look of droopy heads is their vulnerability to pests and disease. You are much less likely to have issues with single-flower types because they don’t fill with water the way the doubles do. Overall, however, there are few disease and pest concerns with properly cared for plants.

With adequate sunlight, drainage, and air circulation, you may prevent the potentially root-rotting botrytis fungus from taking hold. If you see spots on your leaves and buds that fail to open, you may be at risk. You may try snipping off damaged areas and treating with an anti-fungal agent, but if they’re extensive, you’re better off digging up the plant and disposing of it.

Don’t panic if you see ants munching on your peony flower buds. They are clearing away a gummy substance that seals the bud shut and with no ants, no blooms.

We’ve already mentioning mulch in cold regions. Just be sure not to layer it too thickly, as plants may fail if they are buried too deeply. And as for the ants commonly seen crawling over buds waiting to burst, there’s no apparent symbiotic relationship, just a craving for the buds’ sweetness.

Cultivars to Consider

Now that you have a basic working knowledge of the Paeonia genus and how to cultivate its showstopping blossoms, you’re ready to purchase good quality plants and/or rootstock. You may like the following:

Red Magic

Crimson double flowers and an understated scent characterize this mid-season bloomer with a three-foot spread.

Red Magic

This cultivar grows up to 36 inches tall and 36 sixes wide and blooms in the later spring to full summer and is easy to grow.

Available from Eden Brothers in packages of two, four, or 10 roots.

Raspberry Sunday

This pretty cultivar is colored like it’s namesake featuring double pink and cream blooms. It makes for beautiful centerpieces in the flower garden and works just as well in flower arrangements.

Raspberry Sunday

The lightly scented and deer resistant variety grows up to 25-36 inches with Double Flowers 5-7″ in diameter and blooms in the mid-spring.

Find it now at Eden Brothers.

Shirley Temple

Although Shirley Temple was a star on the big screen, this peony variety can be the star in you flowerbeds! Featuring large 5-8 inch blooms that range from a soft baby pink to a cream, this variety is great for those who have a pastel color pallet in their landscaping scheme.

Shirley Temple

The Shirley Temple is a bit shorter than most herbaceous style peonies reaching 25 inches. It blooms in the late spring to early summer.

Available from Eden Brothers.

Where to Buy?

It’s important that you purchase from reputable suppliers with good refund policies. We suggest Eden Brothers for your needs.

See all of Eden Brother’s Peony Selections for Spring Planting

See all of Eden Brother’s Peony Selections for Fall Planting

Showy Spring to Summer

Several years ago, I was given a gorgeous magenta double-flower gem dug from a neighbor’s decades old garden. Sadly, it failed to return one spring, and I know why.

We had had a water main break in January, and my driveway border garden took a beating from ice and rock salt. And, although the peony is somewhat salt tolerant, per the pros at the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, it has its limits.

Keep this in mind when you plant yours. The good news is that they are deer and rabbit resistant, although remember, a starving animal may eat anything he can find.

Semi-double spring blooming ‘Buckeye Belle’ is a cross between P. officinalis and P. lactiflora.

Grow early, mid-season, and late bloomers to enjoy the full spring-to-summer season. And if you just don’t have the space for them to grow in the garden, consider cultivating these stalwart perennials in containers.

It’s time to add the peony to your garden planner. Who knows? It may be your grandchildren who pick bouquets of its lovely blossoms in years to come.

Do you love flowering perennials as much as we do? If so, be sure to check out some of our other guides:

  • Grow Heavenly Hyacinths for Rich Spring Color and Sweet Perfume
  • Charming Dianthus: Fragrant, Pretty, and Easy to Grow
  • Easy-Care Coreopsis Rewards with Beautiful Blooms


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Photo credit: Eden Brothers, .

About Nan Schiller

Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!


Tree Peonies

Tree Peonies are woody stemmed shrubs that will grow to their mature size in 5 to 8 years. Blossoms will reach 5-7″ wide, unless otherwise noted, and the plants will reach 3 1/2′ to 5′ tall and wide.

Recommended for USDA Zones 4-8.

A few of our Tree Peonies,
ready to ship

We propagate and grow all of the Tree Peonies we offer for sale. We ship 3-to 4-year-old plants in 1.07 gallon/4.08 liter pots from spring through fall.


Hybrid Peonies are the result of crossing or breeding two Peony species together. They bloom early in the season with shorter bush stature and lighter green vibrant foliage than regular garden peonies. Their planting and care are similar to growing any Peony.

>Hybrid Varieties

Japanese Moutan

Popular in western gardens for over a century, Japanese Moutan Tree Peonies were introduced into Japan by Chinese and Korean monks during the eighth century A.D. They were further developed by Japanese monks, becoming favorites of numerous Japanese emperors and were planted and revered in temple gardens in ancient cities of Kyoto and Osaka. Beautiful, large, single to double flowers range from bright scarlet, purple, pale pink to pure white with crepe-paper like petals and bear traditional, romantic Japanese cultivar names. The spectacular flowers are accompanied by handsome, divided foliage that extends the ornamental period of interest. Forming an upright to rounded long-lived shrub, they are a superb choice for creating focal points in the garden. We have selected and propagate the best forms for North American gardens.

>Japanese Moutan Varieties

Nassos Daphnis Hybrids

Born in Sparta, Greece, contemporary New York artist Nassos Daphnis was a close friend and business partner of William Gratwick. Their relationship has ensured survival and ongoing use for breeding of Gratwick’s tree peonies. For many years, Daphnis would visit Gratwick in spring to hybridize and evaluate new progeny. Today, the Daphnis hybrids represent the 4th, 5th and 6th breeding generations. From the start, he established extremely high judging criteria with only very small numbers achieving the ultimate accolade of been assigned a Greek mythological name. Chacteristically, his progeny display symmetrical, beautiful colored flowers above attractive foliage which all make excellent garden plants. Many knowledgeable enthusiasts consider Daphnis tree peonies the zenith of woody peony breeding.

>Nassos Daphnis Varieties

Sir Peter Smithers Hybrids

A distinguished British national and international political and diplomatic career was paralleled by a love of gardening which culminated in the creation of Vico Morcote, his magnificent home and garden on Switzerland’s Lake Lugano. An appreciation and curiosity regarding the beauty of flowers stimulated an interest in tree peonies, Nerines and true lilies. Using P. rockii with its handsome, prominently flared petals, Sir Peter created a number of outstanding tree peony hybrids which were named for friends and family with arguably the finest creation reserved for his devoted wife for over 50 years, Dojean. His creative instincts enabled him to become an award winning photographer and the author of a fascinating book “Adventures of a Gardener” about his life and love of gardening. Song Sparrow is honored to exclusively offer a selection of Sir Peter’s magnificent tree peony hybrids.

>Sir Peter Smithers Varieties

American Hybrids

Tree Peonies bred and propagated in North America are fully adapted for their successful growth and performance in a range of climate and cultural conditions experienced across the continent. Vigor and disease resistance, especially an absence of harmful viruses ensures an annual production of large and spectacular flowers displayed above and against a backdrop of beautiful foliage, which extends ornamental interest after the flowers. We propagate all our North American Tree Peony Hybrids at our nursery and are convinced they truly represent an outstanding long-term investment in your landscape.

>American Hybrid Varieties

Intersectional or Itoh Hybrids

Intersectional Peony hybrids, also known as Itoh Peonies in honor of Toichi Itoh, the originator of these unique, long-lived, hybrid Peonies. They are the result of a cross made between herbaceous Peonies (perennial, tops die back in late fall) and Tree Peonies (woody shrubs). Itoh Peonies have the remarkable flowers and handsome foliage of Tree Peonies on herbaceous plants with tops that die back to approximately 1-2″ above ground level. They form compact, 2-3′ tall, rounded plants with abundant blooms held on strong stems. Like other types of Peonies, they are deer resistant.

>Intersectional or Itoh Hybrid Varieties

William Gratwick Hybrids

Harvard educated, this true Renaissance man created extensive gardens embellished with his sculptures and beloved Tree Peonies at his Pavilion estate in upstate New York. A friend and assistant to Professor Saunders, Gratwick inherited many of his choice hybrids and continued the breeding program. He also imported Paeonia suffruticosa seed from Japan to work with, selecting only the finest flowering forms. His best introductions, such as ‘Guardian of the Monastery’ and ‘Companion of Serenity’, are the standards by which other Tree Peony varieties are judged.

>William Gratwick Varieties

New for 2019

Part of the fun of gardening is trying something new! We choose our new plants for both their beauty and their good growing traits.

>New for 2019 Varieties

New in 2018

Part of the fun of gardening is trying something new! We choose our new plants for both their beauty and their good growing traits.

>New in 2018 Varieties

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