Fall in the peony garden: vivid foliage and care tips

The colorful world of fall foliage in peonies is worth discovering while you are preparing them for the upcoming winter.

As summer fades and the air turns crisper, nature’s paintbrush transforms the landscape in my area into a mesmerizing spectacle of reds, oranges, and yellows. While many associate these vibrant hues with the leaves of trees and shrubs, there’s a hidden gem in my garden that deserves its own share of the spotlight during this season: herbaceous peonies and their hybrid cousins, Itoh peonies.

The peony’s autumn transformation

Peonies, known for their sumptuous and fragrant blooms in spring, might not be the first plant that comes to mind when you think of fall foliage. However, their lush, green leaves don’t disappoint as the calendar turns to autumn. The peonies’ green foliage undergoes a striking transformation, with their deeply lobed or serrated leaves morphing into a palette of golden and bronze even burgundy tones.

As the days shorten and temperatures drop, the chlorophyll in the leaves starts to break down, revealing the hidden pigments that were masked by the green throughout the growing season. The result is a breathtaking display of warm, earthy hues that adds a touch of elegance to your garden, making peonies worthy for fall interest.

Temperature and general growing conditions may contribute to the fall colors of specific varieties more than of others. Unfortunately this year, many of my specimens were affected by fungal diseases. As a result, I was a little disappointed by the display, less exhuberant than years before. Notheless, those that were colorful were stunning.

Itoh peonies: A kaleidoscope of colors

If you’re looking to take your fall garden to the next level, consider Itoh peonies, which are hybrids of the herbaceous and tree peony varieties. What sets Itoh peonies apart from their traditional counterparts is not just their stunning blooms but also their vibrant foliage held high on strong stems. These hybrids offer a wider range of fall colors, making them a showstopper in any autumn landscape.

Itoh peonies can display shades of red, purple, and orange in their leaves, adding an extraordinary dimension to your garden’s fall palette. These unique and colorful leaves are often the highlight of the peony borders long after their spring blooms have faded. It’s noticeable that the same plant may exhibit different shades from one year to the next, ranging from golden to bright red.

Paeonia ‘Berry Garcia’ (Itoh)

Caring for your herbaceous peonies and Itoh peonies in the fall

To ensure your herbaceous peonies and Itoh peonies showcase their stunning fall foliage, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Fruit of peony with seeds

Collect seeds on leftover seed pods: If you have not cut floral stems, herbaceous peonies may have seed pods. These pods develop after the peony has finished flowering, and they contain seeds. The appearance of the seed pods varies depending on the peony species or variety but generally consists of a cluster of elongated, oblong structures. The seeds inside these pods can be collected for propagation if you wish to grow peonies from seeds.

Watering: Continue to check your peonies regularly until the ground freezes. During a drought period, proper hydration ensures the plants are healthy throughout the fall. Be cautious not to overwater.

Delay pruning healthy plants if possible: Don’t trim back your peonies in the early fall. Leave the foliage intact until it naturally turns brown and withers, as this helps the plant store energy for the upcoming growing season.

Nevertheless, if you observe signs of fungal diseases such as botrytis, mildew, or brown spots on the leaves, it’s crucial to promptly prune the affected areas.

In all cases, prune before the winter and be sure to remove all pruned leaves from the ground. Properly disposing of diseased foliage, such as by burning it or using a designated disease-resistant composting method, is essential to prevent the spread of diseases in your garden.

Fall colors of Paeonia Itoh Smith Family Yellow

Weeding: After pruning the foliage, it’s an opportune time to take preventive measures against weeds for the upcoming year. Carefully remove any weeds that have established themselves within the center of the plants. This proactive approach helps maintain a tidy and weed-free environment around your peonies, ensuring their health and vitality.

Mulch: A layer of mulch around the base of the plants – but not too close to the center – may help protect them from extreme temperature fluctuations and maintain soil moisture. Note that this mulch should be removed early in the spring.

Fertilize: Fertilize your peonies in early fall with a fertilizer that has a high potassium content. Potassium promotes strong root development and improves the overall health of your peony plants. You may also want to consider applying well-decomposed compost or organic manure around the outer diameter of the plant. Personally, I prefer using my own compost, as well as sheep and chicken manure for their rich, organic nutrients. Using well-decomposed compost, sheep and chicken manure for their rich, organic nutrients, and potash can provide essential nourishment for your peonies and contribute to their long-term vitality.

Dividing and planting: Fall is also an excellent time to divide mature peony plants if needed. This allows you to rejuvenate your garden and share the beauty of peonies with friends and family. It’s also the best period to plant bare roots from specialized nurseries.

Before their winter rest, the beautiful fall foliage of both herbaceous and Itoh peonies provides a delightful way to extend the beauty of your garden well into the autumn months. Taking a few steps to prepare your peonies for the cold period will also ensure the promise of many blooms in the spring.

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