I always thought that herbaceous peonies were sulky movers and difficult to split, hence the spenny price tag. Then quite by accident one day I split a peony with my clumsy fork-work, didn’t even realise I had done it and was rewarded with a new flowering clump that very same year.
The peony in question is one I inherited with the garden: a big, blowsey, pale pink garden fete of an affair, probably a Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. It isn’t one I would have initially chosen but I have become attached to its forgiving, kind nature and it follows-on beautifully from my Spring Green tulips in late Spring.
In order to retain an incy wincy bit of gardening credibility, I would like to clarify that this happened in a garden that was then new to me, the bed was choked with weeds and I knew rather less about gardening than I do now. Honest. Still, my beginner’s luck has continued – as have the pervasive weeds – and I now realise that peonies are not tricky to divide, they merely take a bit of time and patience to allow their woody roots to develop before rewarding you with blooms.
Here’s how to do it.
The best time is Autumn or early Spring – apologies for not getting this post up in time for you to do it this Spring. Begin by very gently digging up the peony with a fork starting as far from the plant as possible to try and avoid damaging its roots which are brittle and can snap easily. Be careful not to knock the growing points, the little rosy red buds.
Clean the soil from the roots and you will see there is the core crown of the plant with the biggest bits of root. It is probably best to leave this intact. However, there will be some smaller roots branching of it. Incorporating at least two of the growing points, try and detach a small bundle of these from the main plant by gently teasing it apart.
If the root is a tough old thing, throw caution to the wind and get a hacksaw out.
Peonies are prone to honey fungus so to avoid infection it is a good idea to dust the divided root with sulphur powder. This is a natural fungicide and it’s easy to get hold of in the local hardware shops.
The only thing left to do now is replant the divided plants. I put may main crown back where it came from. The smaller plants I potted using John Innes No 2 and have left them outside near a sheltered south-facing wall for a few months before planting out. Already they are coming into leaf.
Despite the disturbance the main crown should flower the same year. For the first year or two after division the smaller plants are unlikely to flower and will put their energies into growing new roots and top foliage. But it’s worth the effort, my new peony plants are likely to live much longer than I will – some have been known to survive for more than a century.
After all, who can resist a peony:
“The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.”
Henry Mitchell, American writer (1923-93)