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when the normally tough peony fails to bloom

peoniesW HEN I GET OVERWHELMED AS GARDENERS DO ABOUT NOW, I think of the peonies that grew in the narrow space between the flagstone walk and a stucco wall of the home of my youth. No matter that there was hardly room for anything in that spot, or that they’d probably been there 30 years already. (Apparently they can live to 100 or longer.) Each year, during the week of my birthday, they bloomed like mad. “Onward,” they seemed to say. “Keep at it.” Sometimes, though, peonies don’t bloom well, or the buds just turn black and dry up, I’ve learned since. Want to know the reasons why?

peonies-2Blooming in herbaceous peonies (and this is true for most plants) is controlled by factors like light, nutrients, the premature removal of foliage, recent transplanting, and also various plant diseases (often triggered by weather conditions). Planting depth can also affect peonies adversely. The details:

light

Are your peonies getting enough sun, or has a nearby tree or shrub grown and reduced the amount over the years (hence a recent decline in bloom, perhaps)? Nearby trees can pose another challenge: When peonies try to compete with extensive root systems of large woody plants, they can lose…meaning reduced bloom. Peonies ideally want a minimum of six hours of full sun a day (you may be able to skimp a little in the more southern part of their hardiness range, Zone 8).

nutrients

Overfeeding peonies, which can even happen inadvertently if they are planted beside a lawn that’s being fertilized heavily, can result in bountiful foliage and no blooms. Best to feed them compost or a balanced, all-natural organic fertilizer (never one high in Nitrogen), or some experts like bone meal. If your soil is good, just a sidedressing each year with compost will do nicely. Peony expert Jeff Jabco of Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania says that in soils with low pH, such as a lot of our areas in the Eastern United States, you may wish to add some pulverized limestone at the time of planting.

foliage

The untimely removal of foliage (too soon, before it can nourish the roots below by “ripening” intact on the plant) will reduce or eliminate peony blooms. Cultivate healthy foliage all season long; cut back to near the ground only after frost.

planting depth

With peonies there is also the “too deep” thing–they really do know if the growing points, or eyes, are buried more than about 2 inches beneath the soil surface. Though the roots will work to right themselves gradually (true!), too-deep planting can delay bloom until the plant makes its way into a better position (unless you bury it so deep it never can adjust).

excess soil moisture

Damp, poorly drained spots will be havoc for peonies. Why waste such a wonderful plant that promises many years of reward by sentencing it to this?

recent upheaval

Was your plant recently acquired, or recently transplanted? Peonies can sulk for a year or more after planting, especially when moved in fall, which is when they make their flower buds. Though that’s an ideal time to move them for many reasons, it can also be a bit of a distraction from their otherwise primary task of bud-production.

diseases and weather

Cold, wet weather in spring can trouble peony buds, and some or many may be lost to fungal outbreaks. Frost is another costly factor: One year we had a freeze here when my earliest bloomers were already coloring up. Not pretty; farewell to that first crop of blooms from those plants. Other reasons buds will “blast” (fail to fully develop, often blackening first and drying up) can include the stress of dry conditions.  Always clean up well around peonies and if there were fungal issues, destroy (do not compost) the affected plant parts.

peonies-3FINALLY, A CONFESSION: I don’t grow any of the big, blowsy peonies in the garden beds here; I reserve them for a row in the out-of-the-way cutting area, which is where the ones in the photos came from. In my garden beds I prefer the scale and delicacy of species peonies, which also tend to accept a bit more shade. But then I’ve already told you that, haven’t I?

Peony information (and sources):

  1. Rita Hlasney says:

    I always learn something new with your columns.
    However our pliated woodpeckers are lovely to see but a pest here. They love to peck holes in our stained and sealed cedar sided house. Down to the insulation, they peck. Had to have an entire area 2×2′ replaced. Now we notice another spot they have chosen. Any suggestions to deter?

  2. Tracie says:

    Thank you….I trimmed peony back after flowering last year. Thank you. You answered why they didn’t bloom this year. One bush had a white mold so I trimmed it round and short. Good leaves so far, no blooms.

  3. Marianne Orr says:

    I have a peony that always had large gorgeous blooms, usually 10 to 15 blooms each year but the last two years the start of the the foliage would only come up out of the ground about 2 to 3″, and you can see long tubers under them. Are you suppose to separate the tubers at some point? TIA

  4. Carole says:

    My peony bush is very old, being transferred from one house to another and then transferred once again to do work on new house. Planted next to Blue Spruce for 7 yrs. and did well till this year when already blooming, the rest of the buds turned black on the stem and died and the leaves look marbled. Can this happen from neighbors spraying chemicals?

    1. margaret says:

      Up above in the story it mentions a couple of reasons buds will “blast” (fail to fully develop, often blackening first and drying up): Fungal diseases, or serious late freeze (which you’re not talking about or you’d know with certainty), or the stress of dry conditions. Read this pdf fact sheet (click!) on diseases from Missouri Botanical FYI, but I suspect you are describing botrytis, or the effect of extreme stress in a very dry spot. (Conifers are very tough neighbors, creating very dry conditions around themselves). If it is disease (or actually always with peonies): Always clean up well around peonies and if there were fungal issues, destroy (do not compost) the affected plant parts.

  5. laura says:

    thank you for your info on peonies i have had one for many yrs it has never bloomed now i know why,not enough sunlight hope it will bloom next yr when i replant it.

    1. margaret says:

      So many things here that were in more sun when I planted them years ago are not in part shade…and blooming less. So I have some to move, too, Laura. : )

  6. Brenda N says:

    my sarah burnhart peony buds up and looks normal every year. but the petal edges turn brown and shrivel preventing full opening of the bud. If it does manage to open it looks like it has been open for weeks and dies. the foliage is green and healthy. It has bloomed this way for 10 years and only getting 2 to 3 foot tall. I bought it in a pot and it was blooming normal a gorgeous pink flower. I planted only as deep as it was in the pot. with the crown undisturbed.
    it is also on North side exposure next to my house. I see no bugs on my plant or bud except ants.
    thanks!

  7. Joyce Singer says:

    After 10 years of blooming, 2 of my 3 peony plants have become skimpy and one has no buds this year.
    They used to be prolific.
    The “healthy one is in a different bed.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joyce. Have trees or shrubs nearby grown bigger, casting more shade? Or have you “buried” the peonies very much deeper over time with more more more mulch that isn’t breaking down at all? (Less likely than the first thought, about light.)

      1. Joyce Singer says:

        Thank you. There actually is a small bush that has grown quite a bit.
        I am going to prune it. I thought something ate the roots.

  8. Judy Rogers says:

    I have two peonies that are right next to each other and have bloomed for several years. This year one bloomed and the other has nothing at all. The foliage is beautiful but not one flower.
    I just can’t figure out what happened. Can you help?

    1. margaret says:

      So many mysteries in the garden, aren’t there? Did you change anything at all — did one get its leaves cut back sooner than the other in fall (before they really faded on their own) or is the mulch really deep on one or was it does with fertilizer that made leaves but limited flowers??? Often these things seem to just happen without explanation, but go down the checklist of possible issues in the article to be sure.

  9. Michele Stachowski says:

    I have a new (only two years old) peony and it has failed to bloom this year while last year it did get a few blooms. Your article did say it can take a few years to really get going. When should I begin to look at other factors before I begin to panic that my Peonies are not blooming?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Michele. Did you top it up with a lot of mulch, maybe (burying it too deep) or did anything else change — or did you cut back the foliage before it withered/blackened at the season’s end on its own, or give it lots of fertilizer (which can prompt leaves at the expense of flowers)? Most likely it is just busy settling in, but just be sure you haven’t intervened in a way that it doesn’t like.

  10. Mary Sue Haskett says:

    Hi Margaret…I read every word you write. Loved the comment about peonies blooming for your birthday. My B-day 6/8 is always a good blooming day! We always called them birthday flowers. Thank you for all you do….mary sue

  11. Julie says:

    One of my peonies failed to bloom 2 years in a row. It is located next too 2 healthy peonies that bloom every year. The leaves look very healthy but it does not have any buds. I have not moved or mulched around it.

    Any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Julie. I’m actually taping a show about success with peonies to run next weekend (like June 8), and will ask the guest expert your question (among others)!

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