The Lowdown on Potted Peony Roots
by Eleanor Tickner
In April of 2001 while at a local nursery, I came upon a potted peony named “Jacorma”. The plant was very healthy looking and the flower description was intriguing. I hadn’t seen that variety in any of the catalogues or on any websites, so I bought it. Thus began a love-hate relationship with potted peonies.
· Do I plant the peony as I would any other potted spring purchase?
· Do I plant it pot and all and hope that I remember to dig up the pot in the fall and replant the root?
· Do I put the pot in semi-shade, water it when I remember and then plant the root in the fall?
My background is in Analytical Chemistry so experimentation is second nature to me. I have tried all three of the methods with varying success. The following article details my experiences with the good and the bad for each method.
Potted peonies planted in April before the hot humid weather sets in, seem to survive very well for me if (1) I do not disturb the root ball when upending the plant and (2) if I water regularly until they are established. The first is relatively easy if the potting medium is firm. But, if the material in the pot is loose (i.e. a combination of peat moss and wood chips) then the feeder roots may become exposed and damaged when upended. I earn a resounding ‘F’ grade in (2) when the watering requires me to carry a container out to a plant that is beyond the reach of three 75 foot hoses.
However, the biggest problem with this method arises when I want to divide the root ball, and I dig down to find a mass of twisted roots that resembles a container of cold spaghetti. This results in only one or two divisions from the plant. If you do not intend to divide that peony plant in the future, planting potted peonies in the early spring may be a tried and true method for you. But, what if the peony root has resided in the pot for two seasons before you purchased it? The plant is probably root-bound and the roots will be growing in concentric circles! The roots will struggle to “right “ themselves and grow outward into the soil; it is possible that the rootball will never attain an outward growing root pattern and will always be circular. This results in a less than desirable above-ground garden specimen.
A potted peony that has been put in the ground pot and all, or one that has been kept all Spring and Summer in a shaded area is the easiest quick fix method for ‘holding ’ a root for fall planting. However, recalling in September that I performed that quick fix in May is not something I excel at. When the plant is ‘re-discovered’ the following year the root ball has an even a more diabolical circular form than the previously mentioned cold spaghetti. With some judicious knife maneuvers, the tangled root ball may yield a usable division. This is NOT cost effective! Of course, I could have avoided this dilemma by making a note on my gardening calendar reminding me to dig up the pot.
So, what can one do to overcome the problems associated with potted plants? I recommend that you purchase roots from one of the commercial members listed under ‘links’ on the APS website. For approximately the same cost, the roots arrive just in time for fall planting. If you are tempted to buy potted peonies, dig up the pot or un-pot it if stored above ground. Then tease the roots apart and remove as much of the year’s matted growth with clippers in order to break the vicious cycle of circular root growth. Divide the root if desired and plant your root in amended soil two inches below the surface.
The question remains…is it necessary for you to buy potted peonies and have to handle the plants twice in one year? Only you can answer that question, but I have learned to stay out of the peony section of the garden centers especially on the first several nursery visits in the spring when plant lust is a common disorder among over-eager, plant starved gardeners.
Oh, and that potted “Jacorma” plant………… the following September I dug up the plant, teased and clipped the roots as described above and replanted it in a perennial bed. The late blooming pink double peony has since flourished and added to my enjoyment of the gardens.