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I’m a big fan of peonies and love both the herbaceous and intersectional peonies and I have both in my garden. I personally think the stunning large blooms are one of the most beautiful flowers you can have, it’s just a shame the flowers are a little short lived.
However, the green foliage still provides an excellent backdrop of colour in herbaceous and shrub borders which is why I always deadhead the flowers as they finish in summer and then cut them back to ground level a little later in the season but more on this below.
One of the main reasons I cut the foliage back to ground level is to reduce the risk of infection from peony wilt disease which unfortunately I still had with one of my peonies. Anyway, back to what to do with peonies after flowering.
Deadheading to keep them tidy
As soon as you’ve fully enjoyed the peony flowers on your plant and they’re starting to fade, deadhead them. I find that each flower seems to last around seven to ten days (depending on the weather). After this, remove the fading flowers by cutting them from the stem. Do this with a sharp, sterilised pair of secateurs just above the set of leaves below the flower. This leaves you with a very short stem above the leaves which won’t detract from the visual appeal of the plant and makes an excellent backdrop of colour.
Deadheading peonies serve several purposes. It keeps the plant looking tidy. As peonies don’t rebloom, it doesn’t encourage new flowers (which is a shame). But it does let the plant start to store food in the roots for the spring growing season. Fading flowers start to rot away and this encourages the growth of fungal diseases so removing the flowers helps to keep the plant healthy and mostly disease free.
I say mostly disease free as peonies seem to be a little susceptible to mildew a powdery grey fungus that forms on the leaves and stems. To try and help prevent this I actually spray them with a funngicide at the very first signs. Sometimes I even spray them before they show any signs as a preventative measure.
You can learn more about pests and diseases that attack peonies here.
Once I get to the end of the season I always cut them back to just above ground level in the autumn. This is optional, but it does remove the dead foliage which gives a home to pests and disease in the winter. Wait to do this task until the frost has killed the plant’s leaves. As already mentioned, I also find it reduced the changed of getting peony wilt.
While cutting them back I sometimes take the opportunity to divide the peony tubers if they have been in for over 4 years to help keep the main plant vigorous and give me an opportunity to plant some new plants. You can learn more about dividing peonies and how to do it here
Using a sharp pair of secateurs, cut the plant back to just above the ground. What I will say is don’t throw the foliage and stems in your compost bin if they have fungal diseases such as mildew that can easily survive and be spread in your compost.
I don’t recommend not cutting them back but if you don’t cut back your peonies, then the leaves and stems will naturally die and fall down to the ground.
You can clean them up in the spring but be careful of the new growth that’s coming up from the roots as they can be easily damaged.
I also recommend putting a peony ring around the new shoots in spring which is support the stems and flowers in summer.
After cutting them back, I also usually put down a layer of mulch to protect the roots from frost and also help maintain moisture in the soil. You can learn more about how I overwinter peonies here.
Using the petals
Another take on this question is to do something with the peony flower petals just as they hit their best appearance. You can cut the peony flower and dry it for a flower arrangement. Once again, cut just 1cm or so above the set of leaves down from the flower. A dried flower arrangement is one way of remembering the glory of the peonies after they bloom.
Alternatively, you can gather up the fallen petals and dry them as they are. Air drying keeps the attractive shape of the petals. Arrange them on a paper towel on a baking sheet and keep them somewhere cool. Over time, they’ll dry up and become brittle. They still retain their fragrance so use them in potpourri or in bath oil which is what my wife actually does.
You can also learn more about what might be eating your peonies in this guide here and how to grow them in pots here.