Caring For Peonies
Peonies!! That spring flower that everyone wants. Who can blame you, they are beautiful and smell amazing. I know I can’t ever get enough and keep adding them to our farm. But in order to keep them blooming and looking beautiful, there are a few things you should do when caring for peonies.
I promise they aren’t hard!!
Once established, peonies will flower abundantly for years! Sometimes when they have big, blousy flowerheads the plant will need to be staked, especially double-flowered types because their blooms are so massive and heavy.
There are specific peony cages that can be super helpful in this; if you have a very established plant just make sure the cage is sturdy and can hold the weight of the plant. If you have a smaller bush you can use a tomato cage as support by turning it upside down and cutting it down to size with a pair of wire cutters.
Additionally you can use bamboo stakes and some roping for staking. The roping is just going around the outside of the bush to help keep the stems from splaying outwards.
A heavy spring rain can flatten your plants in a matter of minutes so it really is important to provide proper support for the stems!
Most plants, especially during their active growing phase, like a little extra food. When peonies are first emerging from the ground during late winter/early spring I like to hit them with some all purpose fertilizer, like this 4-4-4 Dr. Earth organic fertilizer. Feeding your plants early is like giving them a little extra gas and helps give them the best start possible to the season.
When I see the foliage of the peonies is growing nice and big and healthy, I know buds will be coming soon. At this point I start to feed each plant some fertilizer with high phosphorus, geared specifically towards buds and blooms. This means when you are reading the three numbers on the packaging you’re looking for a high middle number.
Fertilizer 101 Lesson:
Quick break to break down fertilizers. Think of the periodic table from high school, N stands for Nitrogen, P for Phosphorus, and K for potassium. These nutrients are key to plant health and represent the three numbers seen on fertilizer bags. They are listed in order (N-P-K) so, a fertilizer that contains 5-10-10 means it has 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 10 percent potassium. A “complete” fertilizer contains some of all three.
These three nutrients are the major three that all plants require in order to grow strong and healthy (they need other nutrients as well but not in as high of quantities). Nitrogen boosts green leafy growth (that’s why you’ll see high N in lawn fertilizers!). Phosphorus helps the plant form a strong root system and therefore also strong buds, blooms and fruit. Potassium helps promote vigorous growth and hardiness, so a deficit may result in wimpy fruit or spindly plants that fall prey to pests and diseases.
At the first sight of shoots in the early spring I go in with a high phosphorus fertilizer. I will regularly (once every other week) feed them this Bud & Bloom Dr. Earth fertilizer (3-9-4) until buds look established.
If you are wanting the biggest, lushest blooms ever, then I highly recommend disbudding for peonies as their buds are developing. This means I remove any side/secondary buds to the main, big one. This will allow the plant to send more energy to that main stem/bloom and will produce a bigger, more impressive flower! I disbud about 2-3 weeks before bloom time so for me early to mid May.
Ants on Peonies
Ants are our friends when it comes to peonies!
Please leave the ants on your peonies and let them do their work! They are GOOD, and some say even ESSENTIAL, for the health of the blooms.
The truth is, ants (like bees) visit the closed peony buds to collect the nectar that is extruded on the outside of the peony bud. The nectar is a source of carbohydrate for the insects that collect it; however, peonies are capable of blooming without the assistance of ants or any other type of insect.
If you’ve watched before you’ve noticed that the ants leave once the flower is open, but if any linger I just gently shake them away and thank them for their work!
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Pests & Fungus on Peonies
You will be happy to know that peonies ARE deer resistant!! And really no small animals or insects bother them.
Fungus on the other hand…
Botrytis Blight and Powdery Mildew are two of the most common fungi found to affect peonies. Both have a signature gray mold look, the blight however produces brown/black spots and can totally kill buds. It’s imperative to understand first why these fungi are present and second to take measures to one, stop the spread and two, prevent it from happening again.
The main thing to remember about fungi is that they become present in more damp and cool conditions. Sometimes we have no control over this due to climate and the weather season but other times we can actively help our plants be the healthiest and strongest they possibly can so when a fungus or disease shows up they don’t want to bother with our strong plant! (Weaker plants are always an easier target and pests/disease know that!).
Tips for keeping healthy plants and preventing disease/pest infestations:
Watering Tips 101: Water evenly and only when necessary, don’t let your plants stress from either over or under-watering. When watering try to just get the water on the soil at the base of the plant, wet leaves attract fungus! Also, water in the morning to allow the plant to drink during the day. Watering at night can also invite fungus because the moisture lingers while temps are cool and the sun is away. Usually, there is no need to water established shrubs and perennials (when they’ve been in the ground over a few months)!
Trim away dead/dying foliage and stems regularly (definitely don’t let it rot on the soil surface near pants!).
Feed your plants appropriate fertilizer (follow the instructions on the label).
Make sure they are getting enough sun (8+hours for peonies!).
Keep weeds at bay – we use mulch as a control and good old hand-weeding.
Check your plant daily and address any pests/fungus as early as possible with organic methods.
Use beneficial insects when possible both as a preventative and combatant!
Back the Botrytis Blight and Powdery Mildew…
For both of these my recommendation is first to physically trim out any infected plant material. Use clean pruners and disinfect (rub with an alcohol wipe) between plants and definitely give them a good sterilization when the job is completed. DO NOT compost the removed plant material, it can be transferred to other plants in your yard or into the soil which would be a big problem! Dispose of the infected material safely and away from other plants.
Next, you’ll want to spray with Neem oil. Neem oil is my preferred fungicide and I always have it on hand because it actually combats both fungi and most insects, plus it’s completely safe and organic!
Another good option is any fungicide containing potassium bicarbonate, or try making your own with this simple recipe:
4 teaspoons potassium bicarbonate
1 tablespoon horticultural oil
1 gallon water
Just mix these ingredients together and using a garden sprayer apply to the infected plants!
If you are letting some flowers stay on the plant, don’t forget to deadhead. This idea with this is that you want to tell your plant to send energy back to the roots. Tubers start their process of energy storage right after they bloom, if you do not remove the spent flower stem you are telling the plant to send energy to make seeds. This is kind of pointless because it would take YEARS for you to grow a peony from seed and because they are cultivars, you would not get that same peony, you would get stock ones which are just not as cool!
What to Do With Peonies in the Fall
Cutting Back Peonies
Much like general bulb plant care, you can remove all the old stems on herbaceous peonies in late fall after the first frost turns the foliage yellow. This means the plant has been successful in sending all its energy to the roots where it will overwinter and use next spring to grow into a hearty and healthy plant. I would discard all the cut foliage to prevent gray mold, a fungus that affects peonies and can survive the winter months in composted old stems.
Fall is also the best time to dig and transplant if you wish to move the location of your plant. Carefully dig around and then clear under the roots, take care not to damage the fleshy tubers. Lever the tuber clump out of the ground with a wide spade or pitchfork, disturbing the root mass as little as possible. Transplant it in the new location, which should be in full sun with well-draining, rich soil. Plant just beneath the soil level, and water it well.
Now is the time to divide and multiply your plants if desired! Large, well-established peonies can be divided in the fall to renew growth or to make new plants (although tubers can actually grow for 40-50 years successfully and undisturbed!). To divide a plant, cut back the foliage, and then carefully dig up the root system and shake or dust the dirt off of the tuber clump. Use a sharp knife cleaned with rubbing alcohol and cut the clump into sections, each holding three to five eyes and several roots. Replant each piece in its new garden location, placing the buds 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Water the new tubers thoroughly.
Providing Winter Protection for Peonies
If you’re growing peonies in a colder hardiness zone you’ll need to protect them from the winter cold, especially in zones 3-5. In late fall, give them a mulch layer 2 to 3 inches thick, using an organic material such as shredded bark or straw. This will help them stay nice and cozy until they emerge in the spring!