Q. I have tried to grow a peony plant for the past eight years. I put “her” in a ceramic pot with good drainage and potting soil which I try to fertilize yearly. She gets sun from around 7 a.m. until about 1 p.m. daily. Three years ago she started producing eight to 10 flower buds each spring and I get my hopes up. Then one bud blooms, looks gorgeous for 24 hours before keeling over in the wind. Meanwhile, all the other buds desiccate and all I have are pretty green leaves until first frost. I keep the soil wet. In eight years I’ve gotten exactly one flower per season that lasts a day, although the foliage does stay plush and pretty. – J.L., Albuquerque
A. When reading your letter, a couple of red flags popped into my head.
First you say “she” is potted in a ceramic pot. What color is the pot? If it’s a dark color, the planting could be getting too warm, sort of “cooking” the soil, and in turn the root mass, even though you say it keeps the foliage growing all season long.
When a plant is stressed the first thing it does is go into “survival mode” and if it’s deemed necessary, a plant will sacrifice the bloom.
The next red flag is since the pot is ceramic, I’m thinking it’s glazed on the outside. That would keep the pot from breathing and maybe is being kept too wet. An overwatered, soggy home is not a good environment.
Does the pot sit on a saucer, and does that saucer stay filled with water that’s coursed out of the pot? Well, that’s not good either.
Next, you mention sunlight. Is it hot sun for those hours the peony gets the sun? I have been taught they prefer bright light, but not hot, direct sun. The healthiest peonies I’ve known grew in dappled, all-day light, with very little direct sun hitting them for any length of time.
Then, you said the word wind. To me, that means the plant is being buffeted near constantly. That might be part of the reason the buds fail.
I was taught that little black ants and peonies have a very symbiotic relationship. If I have it right, the ants strolling through a peony blossom keep it happier. You didn’t mention spraying for any pests, but if so, that could be another detriment.
Do you notice any brown spots on the leaves, stems and the buds when they tend to crumple? It could be botrytis, commonly known as gray mold. It’s recommended to spray the plant with a fungicide, copper or Daconil before the buds show in the early spring to prevent botrytis. But don’t spray the plant when it’s sitting in full sun.
Perhaps back off the water a smidgen; make sure the pot isn’t sitting in a puddle for extended periods of time; see if moving the container out of the sun but keeping it in the light; and if there is a way to deflect really harsh winds, try that.
Here’s to better peony health!
Dear readers, I just want to plant the seed with you all that April is the month I like to call “Surprise!” Mother Nature seems to be unable to make up her mind.
Be ready to offer any new plants protection if the temperatures do go cold. Use an overturned garbage can to cover a container of newly-planted annuals safely. Tenting rows in the garden with sheeting, especially if you have planted young tomatoes or chile, could easily save their lives. Remember to water if it’s going to get cold. Cold, dry temperatures will maim or kill for sure. Remember to be a weather watcher, concentrating on the expected lows, to keep your investments healthy.
Happy Diggin’ In.
Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.