Although we always look for strong stems when we’re evaluating peonies for our catalog, even the strongest stems will bow when their gloriously double flowers are drenched by rain.
If you gently shake the water out immediately afterwards, most of the time they’ll stand back up, so most gardeners simply cross their fingers and grow their peonies without support.
Garden centers offer all sorts of wire-ring and linking-stake supports for peonies and other perennials, but most of these are surprisingly pricey. A less expensive option is to cut a wire-ring tomato tower in half just above one of the rings, so you have two shorter towers. Use the narrower one for newly-planted peonies or smaller perennials, and the wider one for mature peonies. Set it over the plant, pushing the legs securely into the soil. The earlier you do it the better, because once the plant has leafed out you’ll need a helper – or twine – to contain the foliage while you slip the support over it. Leave some stems and foliage outside the support for a more relaxed, natural-looking plant and to hide the wire which is virtually invisible in any case, especially once it rusts.
We usually use the cheap-and-easy method, but there’s a better, more historic way, and it’s actually kind of fun. It’s what they do at Hildene, the summer estate of President Lincoln’s son in Manchester, Vermont. In this article from the January 2014 issue of Horticulture magazine, Hildene’s Andrea Luchini explains:
“From late May through early June, thousands of visitors from far and wide come to see the peonies at Hildene, the Lincoln family’s 412-acre estate. More than 175 of our herbaceous beauties, mostly heirloom varieties, need staking each spring.
“In order to keep our gardens looking as pristine as possible, I minimize the appearance of stakes, maximizing the beauty of the flowers. We do have a few mass plantings in border beds, but for the most part each plant is a large clump within a garden bed and must be staked individually. I have turned a tip from a local plant professional into an easy system for getting all those peonies staked efficiently, with an artistic twist!
“I stake the plants when they have flower buds so that I can easily tell where to string them. For each peony, I insert five stakes equidistant from each other, just on the outside edge of the clump. Then I take a piece of jute twine and tie it to one of the stakes, a few inches below the flower buds. Going counter-clockwise, I pass the twine through the plant going to every other stake and tautly wrapping the twine once around each, until I’m back where I started. When I’m finished there’s a jute star in the middle of the plant.
“To catch the outer flowers, I bring the twine around the outside of the plant, wrapping it once around each stake to encircle the entire clump. This method supports the flowers in sections rather than as one big mass.”