What to Plant Under PeoniesApril 20, 2011
Garden Mentors Facebook Fan Susan recently asked for help with what to plant under her peonies to provide a finished look. Finding the right thing with these plants can be tricky, but once you do, the look is amazing!
Peonies come in essentially two flavors. Herbaceous, which die to the ground each winter and Tree, which form woody stems. Although they can be slow to get established, both forms can easily outlive a gardener, and provide gorgeous blooms and foliage for generations.
The herbaceous plants form small buds just below the soil surface; they should be mulched for winter to protect them. But be careful not to bury them deeply or you may not see them flower well, if at all. Because these plants prefer that their crown (the portion just above ground) be somewhat exposed, ground covers and spreading perennials nearby may not be a good companion choice for peonies. For instance, in my own garden, I inherited beautiful herbaceous peonies planted by gardeners who came before. Unfortunately, someone also planted invasive Alstromeria near some of the peonies. The Alstromeria roots not only intertwined and began choking the peonies, but they also grew over the crowns, which made it very difficult for them to even emerge in spring. In the end, I dug out the mess, separated the tubers I could and composted the rest. And yes, I continue to fight that darn Alstromeria year after year. It’s pretty, but buyer beware!
Okay, so back to what to plant under herbaceous peonies…
I tend to design with herbaceous peonies more for their foliage than for their flowers. Yes, I know: “How can she say that? Peony flowers are the best!” Right, but have you noticed the stunning red color they offer in the garden as they emerge from the soil? And, have you taken a peek at their fantastic fall color that’s ideal to cut down for autumn arrangements? And, bonus, powder-fragrant flowers in spring! But, because they do emerge with red stems that fade to green and later change back to oranges and reds, picking what to put under them isn’t so much a matching game to go with whatever color flower (from white to pink to purple to red to yellow) you might have. It’s a challenge to make it work with everything about these great plants.
So, stay away from invasive, humping groundcovers and spreading perennials that may both choke out the plants. Keep in mind the color range of your plant. Take note on your exposure. Peonies can bloom beautifully in beds that get only a few hours of morning sun or beds that get a full day of sun. Think about the slow spreading rate of the peony itself, and then start choosing…
Low growing shrubs like miniature rhodies, azaleas or Sarcococca can be perfect. They stay below the peony, can be selected to bloom before the peony, and they can act like a support for dropping, heavy peony flowers in a rainstorm.
Grasses and grass-like plants such as Carex ‘Cappuccino’ can provide year-round interest as well as feathery texture. Plus, they don’t spread incredibly fast. Placed to the side of the a peony, they can be quite lovely.
Skip a plant & use something else. Peonies often need support. A strategically placed rock, piece of art or even a nurselog can provide year-round interest as well as a support for soggy flowers.
Ferns add texture. Smaller deer fern below or a side dressing of sword fern can provide evergreen interest while your peonies are resting below the soil for winter. Come spring, watch them all unfurl together.
Groundcovers & perennials should be selected with care. Creeping Jenny and other bright colored groundcovers look great under a Peony as do hardy geraniums, but be prepared to clear them away from the base of your peonies every year, winnowing out roots carefully and completely.