How I Grow Peonies from Seed

My first bit of advice. Pay no attention to all the misguided instructions about putting seeds in the refrigerator. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have enough of a chill in our evening temperatures not to warrant that, and chances are high that you will do more harm than good.

“By about mid-December (yes, I said December!) about a quarter of the seeds have sprouted.”

Second. Use fresh seed. The fresher the better. This doesn’t mean that hardened seeds won’t sprout. It just means that some of your fresh seed will sprout quickly–as in three or four months. You’ll get that wonderful rush one gets from being successful, along with enough enthusiasm to be patient with the rest.

So here is how I’ve gone about getting peony seeds to sprout. I start by harvesting seeds from my plants as soon as the pods split open, which is usually in mid-August or early September.I collect the shiny blue-black seeds, discarding the red undeveloped ones, and plant them about an inch deep in moistened seed-starter potting soil. I use the starter kits that come with 72 plastic cells, a plastic tray and a clear dome. Each seed goes into its own cell.

Next, I spritz the soil surface down with water from a hand sprayer–just enough to get the surface good and saturated, place the clear dome over the top, and let nature do the rest. Up to this year, I’ve just placed the trays on our covered front porch, but now I have my own handy coldframes, which is fortunate, since the number of seedlings is increasing all the time! Now and then I check on them and spritz the soil surface down again if they appear to be getting too dry.

Seedling Tray

Seedling Tray

By about mid-December (yes, I said December!) about a quarter of the seeds have sprouted. These little guys are tough! We’ve had temperatures in the single digits and, other than the clear dome, they have no other artificial protection, yet there they are, up and checking out the world long after their parents have gone to bed (isn’t that just like kids!)

After that, I check on them frequently, take the lids off so they can get some fresh air on a sunny day, keep them protected, and just watch the magic. With the coming of spring, I pretty much keep the lids off all the time, placing the trays in a place that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. When the seedlings are about a year old, (which is about the time I am harvesting the next year’s seeds) I pot them into 4-inch pots

There are just a couple more very important points to make. One, do not discard the unsprouted seeds in their trays. I just keep them happy and moist, but not too wet, all year, and come the following fall or winter, more will sprout. They have sprouted for me up to three years after I’ve planted them.

The second thing to know is that if a seedling appears to shrivel up and die, don’t toss it out until you have examined it very carefully, as it may have just gone to bed early. Considering those poor little guys have been awake since December, it’s no wonder a few decide to tuck in for a nap in mid spring. Look for the telltale sign of life, that solid little pink nose just under the surface of the soil

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