How I Got My Peonies to Bloom in Their First Season: the Triumphs and Pitfalls of Planting Peonies
Peonies are my absolute favorite flowers! If peonies were a holiday, they would be Christmas because peony blooms come once a year. Peony blooms, the main reason for wanting to plant peonies in the first place, are long-anticipated and when the blooms finally open, it is like Santa has arrived delivering gorgeous flowers. But like Christmas, peony blooms are short-lived, leaving us waiting for them to come again next year. What is so special about peonies is not only the peony blooms themselves, but the anticipation of watching the buds grow larger and larger over many weeks and then finally seeing them come to fruition in all of their glory. This is why it is key that you get your peonies to bloom in their first year, so that you do not miss out on all of the excitement!
Peony Stages from Bud to Bloom
I have always had a love affair with peonies, but before now we were star-crossed lovers as I tried to have peonies in various bouquets, including my wedding bouquet, but was sadly disappointed when they always seemed to be out of season. Peony season is late spring to early summer. So, this year I decided that I was finally going to enjoy peonies of my own by plating them in my garden. Before I planted my peonies I did research to find out how it should be done and what to expect. All of the sources I read were either vague or conflicting. For example, they would say not to plant your peonies too deep, but left you wondering how to identify if they are planted too deep. One thing that every source said was that peonies do not open for their first two years. Imagine my disappointment! But being the true peony lover that I am, I still bought five of them and resigned myself to dutifully wait it out. I bought two Sarah Bernhardt double peonies, two Bowl of Beauty herbaceous peonies, and one Jan Van Leeuwen peony. Another fact that most sources agreed upon was that peonies should be planted in the fall. This was another disheartening tip, as it was already spring and I was going to plant my peonies regardless.
Despite what all of the sources said, four out of my five peonies bloomed this year, their first year. I will tell you how I did it! The peony that did not bloom is an example of one of the tragic pitfalls that I will discuss.
Choosing Your Peonies
First, it is important to note that I bought my peonies at a local nursery. Choosing your peonies is the first and most important step because if your peony has a disease when you buy it, it likely will not bloom in its first year. When choosing a peony, look for more mature plants. Peonies range from $30 to $70 each, and these prices tend to have nothing to do with how large or mature the specimen is, so shop around and choose wisely to get the best bang for your buck! Getting peonies when they are past their more tender stages not only makes blooms more likely, but also makes the plant hardier and therefore a better investment, especially if your nursery does not have a one year money back guarantee on perennials.
Once you have found some mature-looking peonies, next look to see how many buds they have. The more buds, the better. If there are no buds, but you want that type of peony, you may have to wait it out a year or two. Now, look at the buds on the peonies that you have identified as possible choices. Are any of them blackish brown in color? Even a little bit? Then drop those from consideration. They could have a disease, which can spread quickly to all of the buds on the plant and completely dash your dreams of blooms from that peony. Another key consideration is the actual structure of the peony plant. How do the stalks look? Are they thick? Are they thin? How close together are they? All of these considerations matter when it comes to how that peony will stand up to the elements in your garden. Look for thicker stalks that are closer together, as these tend to be sturdier against wind, rain, and possibly hail. Look at the peonies' leaves are they a nice deep green or are they yellowish or covered in black spots? Look for nice deep green leaves and green and pinkish, reddish stalks. That means the peony is healthy. Avoid yellow leaves or leaves with black spots.
A special note: I am aware that many people get peonies from friends and family members whose peonies have spread over time. All of my tips for picking peonies still apply. However, your peony donor will likely want to split his or her peonies in the fall and then you can plant the peonies you receive right away, but they may not bloom in their first year. Success is more likely if your peony donor gives you peonies that have buds on them in the beginning of spring and you plant them then. But be careful of late frosts! You may need to cover your peonies with sheets if a late frost is imminent.
Planting Your Peonies
Once you select your peonies and bring them home, it is time to plant them. The first consideration when planting peonies is where to plant them. Peonies do best in full sun or 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Therefore, it is important to pick a sunny spot to plant your peonies! I planted my peonies in my back yard, which faces southeast, so I attribute some of my success to the almost constant sun there. I employed the same tried and true planting methods that my parents and grandparents, who all have miraculous green thumbs with everything they plant, have used all their lives. You will need a shovel, miracle grow (see below), and a garden hose. Dig holes where you want your peonies to be. Make sure not to plant them too close to each other or to other plants as they will eventually spread and the flowers will flop over to the sides when they bloom. Make sure that the holes are not too deep. You want to make sure that the peonies' new shoots are uncovered. To make sure of this, I planted mine with the top layer of their potted soil showing through the surrounding dirt slightly. Put a scoop of miracle grow in each hole and spray in each hole with a hose until each has a puddle of water in it and the miracle grow has dissolved. Some sources say not to fertilize peonies when you plant them and that you should plant peonies in special soil. I planted my peonies in the clay dirt that is in my yard and fertilized them. They bloomed!
I use Miracle Grow Feeder Refill for a lot of my fertilizing needs, just as my family has before me, and like a miracle, it always seems to work.
For the first few weeks after planting your peonies, water them daily, but be sure not to over-water them. Newly planted peonies' leaves can curl up when they are stressed and one way to stress them out is over-watering. If your peonies' leaves begin to curl up, stop watering them for a few days and they should uncurl. Adjust your watering habits accordingly. After this initial period, I watered my peonies as needed and watched as their buds began to grow and as they bloomed in waves.
My Bowl of Beauty and Sarah Bernhardt peonies did wonderfully! Both Bowl of Beauties had a dozen blooms each and my Sarah Bernhardt peonies, which were much smaller specimens, had a few large blooms each.
Sarah Bernhardt Peony & Bowl of Beauty Peony
(Please excuse the lack of mulch. These flower beds were under construction when these photos were taken.)
My Jan Van Leeuwen peony, despite having over a dozen buds when I bought it and being an overall healthy and mature plant, did not have any blooms this year. This brings me to one of the pitfalls that I mentioned earlier. My Jan Van Leeuwen peony had Botrytis blight or gray mold, which looks similar to bud blight, a condition where buds fail to open due to stress like a late frost or planting too deep, but also includes the appearance of the buds becoming brown and papery. The only way to treat this disease is to cut off the affected areas, being careful not to leave any of the cut plant debris in the bed as the disease can last through the winter and spread again in spring. So, that is exactly what I did, I cut all the withering buds from my Jan Van Leeuwen peony, and now I have my fingers crossed that it will bloom next year. I could have avoided this issue if I had recognized the early signs of the disease and chosen a different peony when I bought it. When I bought my Jan Van Leeuwen peony, all of the buds looked healthy except one, which had a small blackish brown spot on it. I did not think much of it and bought it anyway. We experienced a large amount of rain for several weeks, a perfect storm for Botrytis blight so to speak, and I began to notice that the bud was getting blacker. I cut it off, but by this time it had spread to the other buds and removal of all of them became my only option.
The Tragedy of Botrytis Blight
Although peonies only bloom once a year, which might be a detracting factor for some gardeners who want more frequent blooms, peonies are redeemed by the beautiful, lush foliage they add to your garden even when they are not in bloom.
Peony Post-Blooming Season