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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. Judith McKnight says:

    Margaret,
    Enjoyed your peonie photos. The house I moved into has one plant on the side of the house. I planted two more yesterday. Never planted them before. Moved from Texas to North Dakota so I am learning to garden a different way. Quite interesting. Now I am getting ready for the second winter. I was a Master Gardener in Texas so I have to train my mind to think more about zone and winter protection. Enjoy your web site very much.

  2. liv says:

    Thanks very much for the peony fact sheet. It is now too late in the season to diagnose clearly, but I will provide for better air circulation next year and that should be a big step forward. Thanks for all the input.

  3. MO says:

    thanks for the tips – I keep trying to put my peonies where they should not go – under trees- too much shade etc- thanks for the reminder

  4. Delores says:

    Peonies are my favorite flowers and your pictures are just beautiful. I transplanted the summer before last and had only a few blooms this spring but the plants look healthy and seem to be thriving. I did mulch them last winter and wonder if I may have prevented them from getting the winter chill they require. What do you think? Do you mulch your peonies? Does the mulch count for the depth issues in terms of not wanted to be too deep in the soil? Love your blog.

  5. Vickie says:

    What if one did plant too deeply (transplanted one 2yrs.ago)?No blooms and I see no buds,just foliage.
    I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest,after my Mom passed,I dug up some treasured plants I’d put in her backyard
    and transplanted them to a very full sun location on my condominium grounds (now my Angel Garden).Thought I’d have blooms by now!Thanks for any and all advice.

  6. Karen says:

    Everything I read says the best time to transplant Peony bushes is in the fall, contrary to your advice. So much contradicting advice abounds on the internet I’m at a loss as to what to do. Peony bushes are so prickly as it is, the last thing I want to do is transplant the wrong time of year.

  7. Mary Veldman says:

    I live in Manitoba Canada where it’s considered a 2B planting Zone. This spring several of my double peonies didn’t even bother to leaf out never mind bloom. When I dug it up to see what’s up, the roots looked and felt normal, except there was no eyes. The roots were not firm, not mushy. We had very little snow cover the past winter, and an early dry spring mixed with very cool temps.

    1. Connie Hays says:

      I live in ontario and mine are acting weird too. I have fewer leafs and one bud that looks like it’s dried up. We had a severely cold winter (-30C for more than a month)with lots of snow. However I do see others locally that are blooming beautifully but they seem to be in sheltered spots against house walls etc. Perhaps next year.?

    1. margaret says:

      The possible answers why are in the story — do any sound familiar to you (planted or mulched too deep…too little light…weather issues…too much fertilizer with high Nitrogen…)?

    2. Marianne says:

      We have the same problem. I think, based on everything I have been reading, we are removing the foliage too soon after blooming! My husband likes a tidy landscape and for the last couple years has been cutting them back early. These are well established plants that were prolific bloomers until two years ago.

      1. margaret says:

        They must be allowed to wither on their own, Marianne, to insure that the plant can do its thing, and also I find that sometimes additional mulch placed on older plantings can bury them too deep suddenly.

  8. Mary Castillo says:

    Ants help the Peony to bloom by eating the sticky sap off the buds…. if you see Ants on the flower buds, don’t wash them off.

  9. joAnne says:

    I have three peonies and two bloom now. One on the outside has not bloomed for two years and I wonder if they are two close together now that they’ve grown larger. Thanks for the article. Every once in awhile, I read an article that confirms I’m doing it right! Lol

  10. Dahlink says:

    Here is Baltimore our peonies have finished blooming. We also have the problem with powdery mildew every year, appearing in late summer or early fall. I never do anything about it, except cut back the most unsightly foliage, and the plants seem to be fine.

  11. Linda Gribko says:

    We had a late freeze and no peony flowers for me this year. Good to know that I should probably move my peony friend, as well, since she’s now in the shade of my maple tree.

  12. Helga G says:

    My peony did poorly this year too. Every year I have lots of blooms by Memorial Day. Not this year. It must have been that “crazy weather” we have in South Jersey this year. Even my CSA was 3 weeks late getting started.

    1. rena says:

      My Peonies have lots of blooms, but do not open. Same thing happened last year.
      Does anyone know what the problem is?

  13. Lorie says:

    Oh, my! You remember where the peonies were at your childhood home…me, too. They were in a straight line smack up against the south side of the garage with a homemade cement trench running not 12″ if front of their feet. They were the Decoration Day flowers!!! If they bloomed on time, great, and were loaded in the trunk of the car and taken to the various cemeteries. If early, they were harvested and wrapped up in newspaper and stored in the basement in coffee cans disguised in foil. If late, they got the same treatment in warm water. My mother was not only a genius at “timing” and also the final decider of who got how many blooms in their coffee can. We’d spend a whole day going from cemetery to cemetery, grooming the graves, placing the flowers and offering a prayer.

  14. Trish says:

    Margaret, love your blog! With over 100 peonies at my stone barn home in New Jersey, I have to admit that I have moved them at all different times of the year and they never sulk. I always say I’d rather be lucky than smart! One from my Mother’s garden when I was a little girl has moved houses 8 times with me. It’s over 50 years old now. Peonies have grit!

    By the way, ordered all three of your books and read your first. Great!

  15. Lynne Nathan says:

    I have four huge, fragrant, fabulous old peonies that I cherish, not only for their beauty, but because they are from my husand’s GRANDMOTHER’S garden! I have moved them twice because I can’t imagine June without a bouquet in every room in my house. The scent is intoxicating!

  16. Maggie says:

    mine do so poorly…..ONE gorgeous flower on each of three plants…not planted too deeply…maybe it’s the air circulation…I just don’t know

  17. Nancy Warberg says:

    Love the single flowered peonies which seem to hold up under adverse weather conditions, which we usually have during peony blooming season in N.C. They have an easier time opening and seem to last longer than the ones with huge multipetaled blooms.

  18. Colleen Jones says:

    Here in Ft Collins CO the peonies are putting on a great show this year, we wonder what we (or the weather) did right?!

    Several years ago I had a problem
    With buds not opening, and if I recall, just turning brown.
    It was due to thrips, and was advised by the nursery expert to spray with spinosad before the buds start opening.
    I have done that for several years, this year I skipped the spray but had no problems, maybe a residual effect?

  19. hope says:

    I have one more reason for peony failure : planting in a USDA Zone too far “South” (South of Zone 8), or with insufficient chill hour winters to stimulate the flower buds. Sadly, here in Zone 9, we can only read about and delight in other people’s happy memories and pictures of the Peonies they grow “up north :)'”

  20. Martha says:

    My peonies are gorgeous but when they bloom, the weight of the blooms drags them down until they are lying on the ground???? Help!

    1. Deborah J Ellenburg says:

      Martha, you need to put a “cage”, or wire pen around your peonies as they are coming up. Keep checking every couple of days to make sure that all branches are inside. This cage needs to be about 18 inches high. You can buy these at Lowe’s, Home Depot or your local garden center. You can also make your own with Hogwire or the wire with the squares that are about 6″ by 6″. These are the sturdiest and you can make them the circumference that you need for each individual plant. These cages hold your blooms up off the ground and give them the support they need. I wish you the best of luck with your Peonies!

  21. Mindy says:

    I would like to mention one other reason peonies might not be blooming, adjacent walnut trees. The walnut trees put out a toxin (juglone) that most peonies are sensitive to. We learned this when we moved to a home with 50+ black walnut trees. The peonies can not be within 80 feet of the tree base. The experts say that even the leaves and the nuts that are dropped can leave enough toxin in the soil to disturb sensitive plants. Hence no peonies.

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