A Simple But Heavy Task
Peony propagation is both one of the simplest and one of the most difficult tasks in the perennial garden.
The difficulty is simply the large size of the plant that we are dealing with. Peonies make immense root structures and digging them up in order to divide them is not a five minute job. Any Peony that has been in the ground for five years or more will require that you dig a hole at least a meter in diameter and probably 50 cm deep. Even at that size you will be amazed at how thick the roots are that extend beyond that space. Once you have actually released the root mass from the soil you will find that lifting it into your wheelbarrow may require some assistance. Those massive roots are quite heavy. The simple aspect of Peony propagation is in the actual steps. Dig up. Divide. Replant. No advanced horticultural tricks or techniques except dealing with the size of the thing.
When Do I Dig? Early autumn is by far the best time. As soon as the foliage has started to fade to brown, it is time to dig. Peonies can usually be safely moved at other times because they are very tough plants. Plants moved in the fall will usually bloom again the next spring, whereas plants dug and divided at other times will merely survive and may take a couple of years before they resume blooming.
How Do I Divide It seems daunting at first glance. Cut the foliage off, leaving about 7 - 9 cm stems attached to the root. Wash the root mass free of most soil so that you can actually see what you are dealing with. Study the massive root structure and determine sections of it that have 4 to 5 healthy looking red buds, (usually called eyes.) A combination of wiggling, urging and then cutting through the roots will eventually produce several divisions with a reasonable amount of root structure and the necessary eyes. This will take some time and large pair of pruners to cut through the heavy roots. I have used a pruning saw or large knife to divide the heaviest roots.
Why Divide? Good sized divisions of Peonies will actually perform much better than trying to simply replant the whole root mass. Dividing gets you several pieces to replant or to give to gardening friends. Digging Peonies up is a totally unnecessary activity unless you must move it or you want to undertake Peony propagation and that entails dividing it. A well planted and located Peony is happy in the same home for 25 + years. Locate it well and never bring a shovel near it again.
How Do I Replant It? Planting a Peony division is the one place where you can make a serious error. It is all about planting depth. You must dig a hole big enough to accommodate the large section of root that you are going to plant. You need to amend the soil with lots of compost so that it will be a viable location for the next 25 years. You need to locate the division in the hole so that those bright red eyes are between 3 - 5 cm below the surface of the soil. If they are too deep it may never bloom. It will grow leaves quite beautifully but the flowers that you are after will never develop. Firm the soil in and around the root mass so that it does not settle deeper when you apply the necessary deep watering.
Peony propagation is simply Dig, Divide, Replant. The massive size of the roots is the complicating factor but you really cannot do too much wrong so start digging.
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