Questions on: Peony

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service


Q: I live in Fargo and have some peonies that are starting to bloom after three seasons. Unfortunately, I planted them along the lake and now we need to do some reconstructive work along the shore. I can't wait on the shore work until fall. My choices are to replant the peonies in the middle of the summer and hope for the best or let them die under the wheels of a Bobcat and a pile of rocks. Any recommendations on how I can increase the slim chances that my peonies will survive the transplant? (e-mail reference)

A: Certainly take the chance on moving them. Cut off all the flowers and withhold watering for a day or two before digging and moving the plants. Dig out as much of the rootball as you can and replant as soon as possible. Give the plants plenty of water. If possible, build a shade tent over the plants to help cut down on moisture loss during hot, sunny days.


Q: My peony did not bloom this year and the plant is small. I think it is because I cut the plant down too early in the fall. Will it flower and come back next year? (e-mail reference)

A: As far as plant performance goes, I can't guarantee anything because I don't know the environment it is in, the kind of care it receives or how it was planted. One of the last maintenance procedures performed in the yard in the fall is to remove the foliage from peonies after a few hard frosts, but not sooner.


Q: I have several types of peonies planted together. In other gardens in my area, I see peonies with heavy blooms that seem to stand tall without any artificial support. Mine seem so long-stemmed that they droop over. Am I doing something wrong? They have been in place approximately seven years. Thanks so much! (e-mail reference)

A: You're not doing a thing wrong. It is common for peonies to need support because of their heavy blooms. Stop the fretting. Get some hoops so you can enjoy the beautiful flowers! There is no shame in providing support for any flowers. The difference could be in the soil microclimate.


Q: What is the best time of the year to split and replant peonies? (e-mail reference)

A: A good rule of thumb to follow is to divide and transplant spring-flowering perennials in the fall and fall-flowering perennials in the spring. Midsummer flowering perennials can be divided and transplanted in the spring or fall. Peonies fall right into the fall transplanting schedule.


Q: I would like to know what time of year peonies start to bloom and how long into summer they bloom. Do they bloom up to the first frost? (Berryville, Ark.)

A: You need to educate yourself on peonies. Go to my Web site at http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/hortiscope/flowers/peony.htm for the information. The information is valid for North Dakota and the surrounding areas of the upper Midwest. What they do in your part of the country would be a guess on my part. I imagine the same pattern would follow, but not the same months. I doubt that the peonies will flower right up to the first frost. You might want to check with the horticulturists at the Arkansas Extension Service through your county office or the university.


Q: Can peony bulbs be stored? If so, what is the proper method? (e-mail reference)

A: Yes they can, but only temporarily. Wait until they go dormant after several good frosts, then dig them out and shake as much of the soil off the roots as possible. Do not wash the bulbs. Store them in a dark, cool and dry location. Frequently check the bulbs for root-rot development. If you live in a climate with mild winters, you can pot them and store them outdoors on the north side of the house. If the buds or eyes appear to begin elongating, then get them planted as soon as possible.


Q: I just planted a new fern leaf peony in a fairly sunny place. I made sure it had plenty of water to establish itself. Was I wrong to do that? It is turning yellow. It's even crisping off near the bottom of the plant. Did all the water take something out of the soil or drown the poor thing? I've doused it with Miracle-Gro a few times. Oh dear. Now what? (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Most likely some root death took place and this is what you are seeing. Stop using the Miracle-Gro. Keep the soil moderately moist, but not soggy, and then wait to see what happens next spring. It may surprise you and come back with a vengeance.


Q: Thank you very much for the helpful information included in the article about popular peonies. I enjoy peonies very much for sentimental reasons. I brought two plants from my old house to where I now live. The previous owner also had several, which I have moved to various locations. This year, however, most of the plants are not blooming, which is bothersome. Your article was the first that provided solutions. Thank you! Do you have a regular gardening e-letter? Please add me to your distribution list if you have such a publication. Keep up the good work! (e-mail reference)

A: Hortiscope is published weekly and can be found at www.ag.ndsu.edu and then click on news topic.


Q: I care for a woman more than 100 years old who wanted me to plant her some peony plants last year. I did it knowing they would not flower for the first year and she might not live to see the flowers. Last week I took her out to see them and showed her the three buds that would be opening in the near future. Last night, after I came to work, I found someone had picked the buds and put them in a vase of water. Are they going to bloom? I asked the little lady if she knew something about peonies that I didn't because she had buds in the vase. She said it was a dirty trick!

I don't know if I can tell her that the peonies will open. Should I drop the subject and hope she forgets about the plants? What a disappointment! (e-mail reference)

A: If the buds are too tight, they may not open. I certainly cannot tell from an e-mail message. At this stage in her life, I would drop the subject. Find out if a neighbor has some peonies they could donate to put in her vase and enjoy. If not, forget it. There is no sense causing any more stress than necessary.


Q: I was looking at information on peonies and transplanting because I would like to relocate six plants. The plants are very full and almost made a small hedge last summer. I would like to move the peonies now, but if there is a chance I might kill the plants, I will wait until fall. However, as you said, life is short and seasons seem to pass quicker. I have a plan for these peonies and I would like to implement it this year. In one of your answers, you said transplanting is generally recommended in fall, but you have had good luck doing it now. When is now? I would hate to plunge ahead and find out I am reading something outdated. Thank you for your help. (e-mail reference)

A: That would have been about two to three weeks ago in North Dakota. It is too late to move the plants now because they have emerged and would wilt and die if moved at this stage. I had to tell my wife the same thing this weekend, so you are not alone.


Q: We have established peonies. This spring nearly all of the plants have red leaves instead of the normal green. Some of the plants have their normal green leaves. The leaves are a bright, light, red color. Could this be a fertilizer problem? (e-mail reference)

A: I doubt this is a nutrient problem. More likely it could be related to the cultivar of peony and the juvenility of the foliage. If the peonies don't green normally in a couple of weeks and it doesn't look like they are going to produce any flowers, then something else is causing this problem because I don't know of any mature red-leaf peonies.


Q: I have read your Web site devoted to peonies. This is my first year in an old house that has several clusters of peonies. I am wondering how often I need to divide the clusters. They are blooming beautifully, but I don't know how old they are. What should I use as a guide to determine when I should divide them and what time of year is best to do this? (e-mail reference)

A: A good rule of thumb to follow in dividing plants is to do so when they begin losing vigor or the ability to bloom. Another rule of thumb is to divide spring blooming plants in the fall and fall blooming plants in the spring. Of course, rules are just that and have been broken many times with success. Most peonies can go five or more years before dividing is needed. If they are doing OK, I would suggest leaving them alone no matter how long they have been in one location without being divided.


Q: Do you have any ideas about curing what appears to be a fungus in my peonies? The peonies are at least 30 years old and have a pretty bloom. During the summer, they get brown instead of keeping their healthy, green foliage. Is there anything I can do? (e-mail reference)

A: If you never have divided them, it would be a good idea to do so at the end of this summer. Your problem sounds like downy mildew symptoms. Try spraying early in the season with mancozeb because it has good preventative qualities.


Q: I have had a problem the last few years that started on my peony plants and now has spread to include a few of my hostas. The leaves are notched around the outside edge, looking like someone took a very large pair of pinking shears and cut around the edge of each leaf. What causes the problem and what should I do? (e-mail reference)

A: Slugs or cutter bees are two possibilities. I’m betting that slugs are the problem. There are several ways of controlling slugs, such as diatomaceous earth, egg shells, hydrated lime, slug motels, stale beer and commercial slug baits.


Q: We transplanted two peony bushes last summer, but something ate most of the leaves. I never saw any sign of the culprits, but they stripped the stems. What (and when) should I spray them with to protect the bushes this year? (e-mail reference)

A: That could have been any hungry varmint! Spray with Orthene as the foliage emerges and repeat in two weeks. This leaves a residual and is systemic, which should take care of anything that decides to pick on them for lunch.


Q: My peonies bloom well into the beginning of June. If I didn’t cut them for the flowers, would they bloom more than once? (Minneapolis, Minn.)

A: Yes, in some cases they will bloom again, but not with the vigor of the initial show of color.


Q: I have several peonies that were here when I bought my house (19 years ago). I’ve divided and shared a few times. The plants are very healthy and always covered with sweet flowers. I have no complaints. I am curious why, after they’ve bloomed, there are always a few flower buds that never open. (e-mail reference)

A: Good question! I could not find the answer in any of my references, so let’s explore some possibilities. Earlier, heavier blooming depleted the energy to open the last ones. It could be some sexual parts of the flower are underdeveloped. It could be a response to the shortening length of sunlight. That is all of the possibilities I can think of for now.


Q: I have a peony bush that is 15 years old. It has bloomed once during that time. I have added all kinds of fertilizers and lime. I dug it up and reset it, thinking that I had it planted too deep. What should I do? Remove it and start over? (e-mail reference)

A: You have to be one of the most patient people on earth! Not having the plant in direct sunshine could be the problem, but then I’m sure you already know that. I would pull the nonbloomer out of the ground and get another one. Life is too short to wait for a nonblooming peony to get around to doing its show!


Q: I have several peony plants that must be at least 30 years old. They bloomed profusely until last year. Now we are getting about six flowers per plant. Is there something I can do or have these plants exhausted their life expectancy? (e-mail reference)

A: Dig and divide! If you do it this fall, they may outlive both of us.


Q: My neighbor has a beautiful peony that belonged to her grandmother! She heard that if you freeze the buds they’ll bloom again once transferred to water. Is this true? I thought they would die. Maybe it’s just another wives’ tale! (e-mail reference)

A: When you get to be my age, you think you’ve heard all of the wives’ tales, but this is a new one to me! All I can say is try it and see if it works. If it works, I’ll gladly eat my words, but I don’t think I will have to.


Q: I would like to grow peonies for drying. The colors I would like are red and dark pink. Sometimes, the varieties that are too red turn black when dried. Do you have any suggestions on specific varieties to try? (e-mail reference)

A: I don’t, but you may want to visit my Web site at
www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1037w.htm. There are several methods listed for preserving flowers that may give you better results.


Q: I would like to share a true story. I told a friend that if he ever divided his peony I would like to have a part of it. The next time that I saw him, he handed me a couple of stems from the bush. Not knowing what to say, I thanked him and went home and planted the stems. Imagine my surprise when the bush began to grow the following spring. Last spring, the bush was as big or bigger than a bushel basket. (e-mail reference)

A: Thank you for sharing that story! I’m sure the stems had some root part attached to them and you obviously are blessed with a green thumb. Keep gardening!


Q: I have had a peony for two years that never has flowered. What type of soil conditions do peonies need? Will it flower in the near future? (e-mail reference)

A: Peony plants need some basic conditions to flower. They should not be planted too deep and need plenty of sunshine. Correct one or both of these shortcomings and it should flower.


Q: I read the information on peonies, but saw no reference to the seeds. My peonies formed seed pods that I allowed to mature. The pods eventually dropped seeds all around the plant. I would like to know if they can be successfully grown this way. (e-mail reference)

A: It normally takes five to seven years to produce a flowering peony plant from seed. The propagation is complicated by what is known as “epicotyl dormancy.” What this means is that the seed needs to be sown in a moist medium at room temperature and, after the roots have developed, transplanted to pots placed in a cold room (40 to 50 degrees) or outdoors in winter for two and a half months. This overcomes the dormancy that exists in the shoot tip, which then should grow readily into a plant when moved into warmer temperatures. For that reason, many folks just divide their peonies!


Q: I have ants congregating on the underside of my sunflower leaves. What in the world are they doing? Also, every year when my peonies bloom they are covered with ants. Do the ants somehow help the peonies? (e-mail reference)

A: The ants have probably found some aphids or mites that are producing honeydew (excrement) that the ants are harvesting for their nests. With peonies, the flower bud scales secrete sap that is also rich in carbohydrates that the ants can use as a food source. It was thought that ants were necessary for peony flowers to open. That theory is not true, according to research. Without any ant activity, the flowers still open.


Q: I planted two regular peonies and one Memorial Day peony about five or six years ago. Every year they turn green and look healthy, but never bloom. The Memorial Day peony always buds, but then dries up. Someone told me I planted them too deep, so I carefully lifted them up on a spade, put good soil under them and replanted. No results so far. They are planted on the south side of our house. (Fairdale, N.D.)

A: The only diagnosis I can think of is a flower disease known as botrytis. You could also have a thrip problem, which could keep the flowers from opening. Spray the plants next spring with Orthene to control the possible thrip problem and with Bordeaux mixture to control the botrytis. If they fail to flower after that, dump them or accept them as green plants.


Q: I have a double peony that looked like it was going to have six or seven buds when it first started to come up, but only one developed and bloomed. The rest dried up or never developed. Why? (Duluth, Minn.)

A: The problem could be thrips or a disease known as botrytis. Be sure to cut the spent or non-flowering heads off and dispose of them. Next spring, spray with Orthene as the plants are developing. I am betting thrips is the problem. Usually botrytis destroys the plant.


Q: I have a split leaf peony plant, and I would like to know when to cut it back after it is done blooming. It blooms on Memorial Day and now has several pods where the blossoms were. Do I leave it until fall or cut it back now? (Rothsay, Minn.)

A: Cut the stems that flowered off back to where they originated.


Q: A fellow in town called this afternoon wondering why his peonies didn't have any ants and the blossoms are not opening up. Should he have a little more patience? It has been cold and wet up here! (Lakota, N.D.)

A: Ants have nothing to do with peonies blooming. Cool and wet weather is the problem and probably the specific location of the plants. Blooming will be delayed if the temperatures are cool and the plants are not being baked in both direct and reflective sunlight. You are right, patience is the answer!


Q: Something very odd has happened to my peonies. In previous years they have had a wonderful smell, but this year they don't smell at all! I've searched the internet, but can't find a reason for this. (e-mail reference)

A: I don't know either. Are you trying to smell them at the wrong time? Is evening better? Are the flowers too young or old to give off an aroma? Is it too cool? I’ll let you know if I find an answer.


Q: What is the best way to control weeds in a newly planted peony bed? Is mulch a viable option? If we mulch, does it have to be removed and replaced each fall? (e-mail reference)

A: Mulch with an organic material that is free of weed seed. I would think pine nuggets would look and function well. It does not need to be removed in the fall.


Q: Can I transplant a fern peony now if I take a good sized root ball with the entire plant? We want to take a prized fern peony with us to a different residence. (e-mail reference)

A: Give it a try is all I can say. Water the plant 24 hours before digging it up and protect it from exposure as much as possible. Plant at the same depth, water and fertilize.


Q: I have several large peony plants. They are all blooming, but one spread out on the ground instead of standing up. What’s wrong? (e-mail reference)

A: I have no idea. Take a sample to a local nursery to find out what is going on. I don't have enough information to make a judgment, sorry!


Q: Why are my peonies turning very dark to black and drying out like bamboo? (e-mail reference)

A: The peonies are likely afflicted with a disease known as botrytis. This is a water-borne disease, requiring cool, damp weather for best growth and sporulation. For the best control, remove the infected plant parts and try to find ways to quickly dry the plants by increasing sunshine, air circulation, and reducing watering cycles and duration. Preventative sprays such as captan, chlorothalonil, and benomyl can also be used. This is assuming that the peonies are not planted too deep. If they are, then pull some soil from the crown so that the eyes or buds are no more than one inch below the soil surface.


Q: Now that the fern-leaf peonies are up, what should I do so they bloom the best? (Brookings, S.D.)

A: Not much for now. Their culture is the same as for other peonies. You might want to stake or protect it in some way against our prairie winds if it’s a problem in your area.


Q: I have two questions about gardening. When is the best time to cut back peonies and how far from the ground? When should raspberry bushes be cut back and how far from the ground? (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A: Peonies can be cut back in late fall or early spring, before new growth emerges. Cut them as low as possible. Raspberries should have their fruit bearing canes cut back as soon as they have stopped bearing for the season. Some people wait until the following spring to do this, which is fine in most cases, but it is better to establish a habit of early cane removal. You want to do that because the old canes can be sources of disease and insect problems with next year's growth.

Generally, the canes that will bear fruit next year are cut to about breast height (four feet) in the early spring to facilitate easier harvesting.


Q: Last fall I planted 30 peonies in a new bed but now need to move them because of a construction project. I do have the option to do it next spring or this fall. What is my best option? (Bismarck, N.D.)

A: If you can get to it right away, do it now. If you cannot get to it before the end of October, then move them first thing next spring before new growth emerges.


Q:  I have two peony plants. After the flowers fell off, I found four or five little nubs where the flowers were. Could these be seeds? Can they be planted and how do I go about planting them?  (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A: They are the seedpods but, for a couple of reasons, I want to discourage you from attempting to grow some from seed. They have an epicotyl dormancy that has to be overcome, which requires some timely temperature adjustments. The plants are usually not true to type and it takes several years for flowers to develop.


Q: My husband is wondering if we can pot our peonies in huge pots so we can move them around our property as we see fit. He doesn't like to mow around them and have all the foliage in the way after they're done blooming. After blooming we'd move them to a less conspicuous part of the yard to finish out the year. (Sioux City, IA)

A: I see no reason why peonies couldn't be handled this way. It would require more care on your part because peonies, once established, can pretty much be forgotten. This is not so with containerized plants. Watering and fertilization would be needed and some protection during the winter months although your winters in Iowa are mild compared to ours in North Dakota.


Q: I have three healthy peony plants in close proximity. Last year they did exceptionally well with many large white blossoms. But, when it came time to take a few in the house, I noticed they were infested with tiny black bugs which scattered all over the house. Needless to say my wife refused to have the sweet smelling blooms in the house. What can I do to prevent a repeat performance this year without harming the ants which I understand are necessary for healthy blooms? (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: Go ahead and spray or dip them into a solution of insecticidal soap before bringing them inside and don't worry about the ants. Old myths die hard. The ant/peony relationship is one that should have died a long time ago. While there is definitely an association between the two living organisms, it turns out that the ants need or like the peony flowers while the flowers don't need the ants. Peony flower buds are covered with tiny extra-floral nectaries which are special glands that produce a sweet nectar along the outside edges of the scales that cover the developing buds. Ants will devour this sweet concoction and even drive off insects that may wish to nibble on the buds but their feeding has nothing to do with the buds opening or not. As to what the tiny black bugs might be, your guess would be as good as mine at this point.


Q: Can peonies be started from stem cuttings? (E-mail reference)

A: By division and by seed, and if you are skilled, by grafting. From stem cuttings, no. I have never heard of anyone having success starting peonies from stem cuttings and my references don't indicate any success with that method.


Q: I have several large peonies I would like to transplant but they are still green and very lush. I understand peonies are best transplanted in the autumn, so do I need to wait until the leaves have browned or is it alright to transplant now? (E-mail reference)

A: The books all say to plant in the autumn after a good frost, but I have had plenty of good luck planting them around this time or even earlier!


Q: Can you tell me if the leaves of Engleman ivy, peony or hosta are poisonous? (Cando, N.D.)

A: The Engleman and peony are suspect; the hosta has no references to any poisonings.


Q: I planted some peony (root only) this spring on the south side of the garage. Most came up right away and are about 4 or 5 inches tall. They haven't grown much in the past few weeks, and now the leaves on some of the plants are beginning to turn yellow. I can't see any rings on the leaves, they are just turning yellow toward the outside of the leaves. What could be causing this? (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A: A common mistake is to plant the peony roots too deep, so that would be my best guess at this point. Try pulling the soil back so that the crown of the plant is just 1 inch below the soil surface. That may change things for you.


Q: When peonies are done blooming, can they be cut back or should I leave them? Also, my daughter has cottonwood trees she planted five years ago. This year they have only leafed out the bottom half. Will they eventually come back? (Dupree, S.D.)

A: Allow the peony foliage to remain going into winter. The top half of the poplars have probably been attacked by borers. There should be some evidence of holes or sawdust. That being the case, they will not come back.


Q: I have a peony bush in my planter. It has big double blooms but right now it is still budding and the buds are covered with big flies. They are just swarming on all the buds. Should we spray them with something? Do they hurt the blossoms at all? This happens every spring. I never see ants on them, just flies. (Leola, S.D.)

A: As you likely know, peony buds exude a sticky substance that is attractive to insects, which usually turn out to be ants. In your case for some reason, these flies got there first! If they are annoying you, spray; if not, ignore. They are probably not hurting anything, so should not pose a problem to the plant.


Q: I noticed a couple requests for sources to purchase fernleaf peony and thought you might like to know that I found another. They can be purchased online through www.paradisegarden.com. (E-mail reference)

A: Thank you for the tip! I'm sure many of the readers will appreciate having this information.


Q: I have about 700 peonies that are overrun with quackgrass. Mulching helps, but the quack is persistent. Is there a herbicide for quackgrass in peonies? (E-mail reference)

A: There is nothing listed that is selective, only products like Finale and Roundup, neither of which are selective. If there is some way you can protect the peony plants while applying these herbicides, you may be able to bring it under better control.


Q: I have several peonies that are about 10 years old. This year two of them have curled yellow leaves and look as though they are dying. Is there anything I can do to save them? Can I plant new ones in the same holes? (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Dig them up and divide them, assuming the crowns are still healthy. If not, pitch them. Planting in the same holes could be risky if the cause of death was a disease and not environmental or chemical. If they must be replanted in the same spot, then I would suggest excavating a good portion of the soil and replacing it with some fresh material.


Q: Can you tell me what is wrong with my yard? My peony bushes are full of holes and the snow on the mountain and lily of the valley are brown and dying. Is this a disease or a soil deficiency? (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: The peony plants are apparently on the dinner menu of the local slug population. The other plants appear to have downy mildew. Best treatment is to rogue out affected plants and spray the rest with Bordeaux mixture.


Q: I have several peony plants I would like to break up. When would be a good time to do this for transplanting, and how deep should they be planted? Also, I have some fern leaf peony plants that are several years old but they never do anything. They come up in the spring, grow about 12 inches, maybe get a few buds but never develop. Could it be that they are planted too deep? The buds that do appear are very tiny and turn black before opening into flowers. (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: Late summer (August) is the best time for division and transplanting. This gives the roots plenty of time to re-establish prior to winter. Your description of fern peony problems is exactly symptomatic of planting too deep. Try pulling an inch or so of soil away from the crow to see if that improves things next spring.


Q: We have peonies that are opening misshapen. There are a lot of ants and flies of many types on the various buds. The flower that is open has black edges and not opening the way others have. Are the ants and flies feeding on the tips before the flower opens? (E-mail reference, Ellendale, N.D.)

A: The peonies are likely suffering from being planted too deep, or someone has pulled soil (or mulch) around the crown that is too thick. This causes the plant to produce flower buds that turn brown and never open, or if they do, are greatly misshapen. Another possibility is a disease known as botrytis, which causes many of the same symptoms. It occurs during wet periods in the spring. Best control is good fall clean-up. The ants and flies are attracted to the sticky secretions that the flower buds produce. It is their form of a "honey" fix.


Q: Can you tell me if seeds from a peony plant will be true to parent? After several years this is the first time ever I have seen a peony go to seed and it is only one plant! (Plankinton, S.D.)

A: Probably not, as most have been hybridized for specific quality traits.


Q: We have peonies that have been planted for some time. Our problem is one of the plants had over a hundred buds last year but didn’t come up this year. Also, some of the plants have red leaves and seem to be getting smaller this year. We have fertilized with sheep manure (that has been aged) every fall but last year. What else can we do? (Gettysburg, S.D.)

A: Try digging and dividing--not now, but early fall after a couple of hard frosts. Be sure to not set the divided crowns any more than an inch below grade, or you’ll have a host of new problems.


Q: This is a comment to the person who wanted to pot up a peony to move it. I did this three summers ago. I took a small root from the outside of the plant, and put it in a 2-gallon pot. I had this peony in its pot until this spring. I wintered it with bags of leaves stacked around it. I set it in its permanent place this spring, and it had several flowers on it. ( Driscoll, N.D.)

A: Thanks for the tip. I'm sure all who want to move their peonies will benefit from the information you provided--nothing like real-life experiences to prove something right!


Q: My peonies are finished blooming. Do I cut the dead flowers off now? (E-mail reference, Missouri)

A: Yes, cut them off when they have finished blooming so they don't waste energy making seed.


Q: I bought two peonies for my mother on Mother's Day last year. We planted them promptly. I thought planting them that early would cause a problem, but it didn't. However, this year, about the same time, one was about to bloom, the other had not produced even a hint of budding. Both are very healthy plants, planted in partial sun, great condition soil...no signs of pests, fungus or disease. The other plant is budding like crazy and they are planted no more than 4 feet apart. Why is one blooming and the other not? (E-mail reference)

A: The one plant is probably not flowering because it is planted too deep. Carefully check to see that the crown where the "eyes" of the plant emerge from is no more than 1.5 to 2 inches below the surrounding grade. If that is the case, pull the soil covering the crown back to that depth. The plant will not suddenly flower this year but should do so next season.


Q: I'm planning on moving in the next few months and am wondering if it's possible for me to dig up my peonies, pot them, and then transplant them in my new garden. From everything I've read, peonies don't like to be moved, but my peonies are so gorgeous I can't bear to part with them. (E-mail reference)

A: Assuming you live somewhere in the temperate zone of North America, and considering the time of year, I would say no. Try and work out a deal with the new homeowner (good luck!) to come back this fall after a few frosts to dig them up. Perhaps you could offer to give them a division of some of your clumps.


Q: I just bought a new home and have a plant coming in. I don't know what it is. A friend thought possibly it could be a peony. There are a cluster of red bulbs (dark, maroon in color) sticking straight out of the ground. There is space ( an inch or more) between each one, like it might be a bush or large plant. The bulbs have not yet opened, and I'm not sure if the color will remain red or not. Do you have any guesses? (E-mail reference, St. Louis, Mo.)

A: It does sound like you are describing a peony. The buds should break and new growth emerge as soon as the weather in your region warms consistently, which is way ahead of us here in North Dakota! The only other possibility could be crocus or other early flowering bulbs, but my vote is for it to be peony.


Q: The fern peonies here in town have now begun to brown and fall down. Can they be cut to the ground yet? I know the leaves of dandelions that currently are growing freeze over the winter, but do new shoots come from the existing plant next spring? In other words, is it of value to spray and kill the current plants to ward off them reappearing again in the spring? I have red twig dogwoods that have exploded out of control this summer. Beautiful, but drooping with new growth making for difficulty mowing under them. How does one deal with such ambitious growth? It seems to me that certain oaks at the farm produce way more acorns than other oaks of the same size. I think that there are some oaks that produce no acorns, but I could be wrong about that. Any thoughts on this? (Fertile, Minn., e-mail)

A: Cut down your peonies. Spray your dandelions. As for dealing with your dogwoods, the best method is to cut them back to make mowing easier. Not to worry, they are completely winter hardy and will not suffer from a late summer pruning. The other way, tying them up, is a band-aid approach and not very effective or pretty.

And, it is true that some oak trees are more fruitful than others. Sometimes the fruiting is related to the stress the trees are under, as well as the age. Older, stressed trees will tend to fruit heavier, while younger (but still mature enough) less stressed trees will go fruitless or bear very little fruit. Another reason could be hardiness. The flower bud is less hardy than the leaf bud. Hence, the oak that is marginal in hardiness may get caught in a late spring freeze that kills the flower bud, but doesn't harm the leaf bud.


Q. Can you tell me where I can purchase fern peonies? (Ipswich, S.D.)

A. I could only find one source in all of my many seed catalogs, and that would be Farmer Seed & Nursery.


Q. My peony has seed pods with one to two seeds in each. Do plants grow right from the pod or do they need to be frozen for a while? (Brainerd, Minn.)

A. Remove the seed from the pod and sow in early October. If the seed is viable, something (a small peony) should show up next spring!


Q. Would you please tell me what is wrong with my maple tree? Do fern leaf peonies take the same care as regular peonies? Are Japanese tree lilacs slow growers, and are they OK to plant in this area? Also, do you need to have two mock oranges to get them to flower? (Winner, S.D.)

A. Your maple looks as if it is suffering from too much salt (fertilizer burn or naturally high soil salt content) or is planted too deep. Try to improve the drainage around the plant site if possible, even if it means resetting your tree.

Basically, the peonies all require the same care. Japanese tree lilacs are among the most trouble-free plants to use in our prairie landscapes. They are not slow growers and have an attractive cherry-like bark. Get one!

No, you do not need two mock orange shrubs. Lack of flowering could be due to not enough direct sun, too much nitrogen fertilization or improper pruning. It could be, too, that you really don't have a mock orange!


Q. I have some questions regarding my fern-leaf or memorial peony. It is growing on the east side of my house, it comes up full and lush every spring, buds out, but when the flowers are in full bloom they are edged in black and rather misshapen. Should I move the plant? When should it be moved? Should it be cut way down? (Cooperstown, N.D.)

A. Peonies are not hard to grow — just particular about a few details about how they are grown.

It sounds as if your peony is being touched by a little botrytis. While they will grow just about in any soil in full sun, they will do better if the site is well drained. Fertilize them in the fall with a generous application of Milorganite or something similar.

I'd suggest digging and dividing in September. Be sure each division has three to five buds or "eyes." Throw in a handful of bonemeal or superphosphate, and set the divisions so that the tip of the lowest eye in no more than 2 inches below the surrounding soil level. Water in well, and mulch this first season to prevent heaving.

I suggest removing the foliage each fall when it has been blackened by frosts. The 1st to 10th of October is a good time frame to do this.


Q. Enclosed is a too-friendly plant in our lawn. What is it and how do we get rid of it? Also, my fern peony buds but only one blooms. It's as if they dry up on the bud, even though I try to keep them watered and fertilized. How come? (Voltaire, N.D.)

A. Your "too-friendly plant" is a very determined weed known as ground ivy (Glecoura hederacea). It is a perennial that spreads by rooting on creeping stems, and reproduces by seed. This particular weed will thrive in shade, often out-competing the grasses that are attempting to grow in the same location. I once saw this weed so thick that I recommended the homeowner kill off the little bit of grass in it, and accept the weed as an alternative groundcover. Repeat applications of Trimec (or similar product containing dicamba) will kill it off.

Concerning your peony, try pulling about 1 inch of soil back from the crown of the plant and back off on overhead watering. Also, remove foliage in late fall once it has been blackened by frosts.


Q. I have impatiens as houseplants, and they look healthy and get a lot of buds, but the buds fail to open. What am I doing wrong?

We spread weed and feed on our lawn in April. We like to use grass clippings as mulch in our garden. Can we use the grass this year in the garden? We have cut the lawn five times since. When is it safe to use?

I have Peony plants that have a lot of buds that have a hard time opening. I don't get ants on my plants, but a lot of flies. What is the problem?(Anamoose, N.D.)

A. I could not determine, from the sample you sent, why the flower buds will not open. I suspect it may be thrips, which are everywhere this spring. Try spraying with insecticidal soap—it is harmless.

It should be safe to now use the grass clippings in your garden. It is generally suggested to wait until at least three cuttings have been made.

I'll give you the "laundry list" of why peonies fail to bloom:

1. Planted too deep or too shallow.
2. Too immature—just divided.
3. Crowded—been in same spot too long.
4. Too much shade.
5. Insufficient nutrients.
6. Botrytis fungus.

I vote for #6, strictly as a guess. Dust with all-purpose fungicide and remove stems in fall after frosts have blackened them.


Q. I am sending the leaf and flower from my peony. I was told it is a Chinese peony. I know what the peony looks like, also the fern peony. It is now blooming, and has been for about three weeks. It makes a nice bush plant. (Devils Lake, N.D.)

A. Boy, do you ask a simple, but difficult question! There are many peonies out there that closely resemble each other.

The flower you sent had shattered, but in reconstructing the number of flower petals in the bag, I determined it was a single red form and possibly Paeonia tenuifolia, if the center was filled with gold-colored anthers.


Q. Enclosed is a fern peony five or six years old that is located on the south side of the house. The buds have the same black edges. This has happened last year and this year and I do not think it was caused by frost. (Carrington, N.D.)

A. The peony buds are infected with a fungal disease known as botrytis, or grey mold. This is brought on by wet weather, poor drainage, splashing water or too much shade, or all of the above. Be sure affected blooms are removed immediately and also the frosted debris in the fall. Spray the emerging shoots in the spring with chlorothalonil or benomyl. Repeat a couple more times—at five and then 10 days. If that doesn't help, dig the plant up and move it to a new site.


Q. I enjoy your articles very much and am learning much about plants, although I still have a long way to go.

I recall someone inquiring about fern leaf peonies. One doesn't see them advertised very often.

I don't know how or how long ago it started, but there are many of these planted near Roslyn, S.D. They usually bloom earlier than the other peonies and usually are in full bloom on Memorial Day. They are planted in the early fall. I planted two in front of my house and they had about 15 flowers on each bush last year.

If you drive through the area on Memorial Day weekend, it would be worth your while to stop and see those beautiful flowers. (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A. Thank you for the information. I am glad to be able to provide a source for those interested in fern leaf peonies: Farmer Seed & Nursery, Division of Plantron, Inc., Faribault, MN 55021.

Thank you also for the nice comments about the column.


Q. I am inquiring about the Fern Leaf Memorial Day Peony and what you might know about it. Where does it originate? A friend of ours from North Dakota said they were brought from Norway in the 1800s. We have been raising them for a number of years now. With the cold weather this past spring, they bloomed one to two weeks late. We would appreciate any information you could provide us. Thank you. (McIntosh, Minn.)

A. I am afraid you have stumped me on this question and shown me a hole in my reference library. Everything I have is on culture or propagation. My Hortus III only refers to the Paeonia tenuifolia (fern leaf peony) as coming from southeast Europe to Caucasus. Sorry I could not be of more assistance.


Q: I just got some peonie bush bulbs. My problem is planting them. They are showing stems like a tree, but there are also pinkish root-looking things shooting up.  Which way do I plant them? Which side goes up? (Pennsylvania e-mail)

A: Peony crowns have buds which we often call "eyes"what you are calling the "pinkish root-looking things" sticking straight up. Be careful to not touch or bump them because they break or bruise easily. Set the roots so that the tips of those eyes are about 1 inch below the finished surface of the soil.  You might want to give the crown a good drench with a broad spectrum fungicide as a hedge against any disease organisms lingering amongst the tuberous roots. Bordeaux mixture or Daconil 2787 are a couple of examples.


Q: After admiring peony gardens in the neighborhood for several years I decided to start one myself. The nursery where I bought two young plants (in gallon pots) assures me it's OK to plant them now. However, when I searched the Internet for peony information, it seems everyone warns against planting peonies other than in the fall! Now I'm quite confused. I tried to find information specific to young, potted plants but so far haven't had any luck. Can you help? (Chicago, Ill., e-mail)

A: I think you are getting the terms "planting" and "transplanting" confused. Planting from containers is best done in the early spring; transplanting and propagation by division is best done in the early fall. What the local nursery likely has is a containerized plant that is actively growing and has flower buds ready to open. What I suggest is this: Ask the nursery person to show you how to take your plants out of the containers for planting. He/she should be able to turn the container upside down and gently tap the plant from the pot. It should fall into his hand with an intact root ball. If the soil around the roots crumbles, then the bet is off on it getting established. Peonies generally do not like to be disturbed, and if the soil root ball has not developed sufficiently, this disturbance could set the plant back or kill it outright. Also, be sure the "eyes" or crown buds are no more than 2 inches below the soil surface.


Q: My friends and I have been discussing our peonies and we want to know why peonies won't bloom if they don't have ants on them. What do the ants do to make them open? (Hettinger, N.D., e-mail)

A: Good question! And at the risk of making a sexist remark, the ants causing the peony flowers to open is an old wives’ (gardeners’ etc.) tale! The ants are attracted to the peony flower buds because they secret a sweet sticky substance at that point just prior to opening. I can't tell you how disappointed I was as a young horticulturist to learn that this nice bit of folklore had no truth to it! To get ants off the buds or flowers before bringing them inside, shake them or dip them in warm sudsy water and rinse.


Q: I have recently taken an intense interest in gardening and am quite puzzled as to how to remove the grass from the peonies growing along my roadside. They are beautiful, healthy bushes, some 2 feet in diameter. They are unfortunately marred by grass growing as tall or taller than the peony itself. I am tempted to spray something on them to kill the grass but am very afraid I will kill the plant itself. What should I use, or do I need to dig them all up and start from scratch? (Centralia, Ontario, Canada, e-mail)

A: Try Poast, an excellent grass herbicide that should leave your peonies unharmed with proper application.


Q: I have a list of questions for you:

1. I have several different kinds of monarda and have always grown them with no problems. This year several of the varieties have many leaves turning brown and curling up. What is it and what should I do to stop it?

2. I noticed that many of the ash trees in our shelter belt have leaves that are full of bright orange spots. Is this something they will recover from?

3. I have two Memorial Day peonies (the fern leaf kind), one of which bloomed beautifully this year and the other did nothing. The buds turned brown and never bloomed. Both are plants that I have had for many years. Any idea what would prevent the one from blooming?

4. We have many very large silver maples in our yard and they usually produce a huge amount of seeds that litter our yard. The lawn actually looks brown some years from all the "helicopters." However, this year there were very few seeds. What is the reason for this? I hope the trees aren't in some kind of decline because they provide wonderful shade to our yard and are more than 50 years old. (e-mail) 

A: I am always happy to answer your good questions.

1. With the weather we have had thus far this spring, it could be a fungal disease like leaf spot or downy mildew. Try spraying with bordeaux mixture to control further development of whatever it is.

2. The orange spots on the ash trees are likely ash rust--Puccinia sparaganoides. The alternate host is a marsh grass. It is usually more cosmetic than destructive.

3. Probably early bud rot--Botrytis paeoniae. Clean up the plant this fall, completely removing all plant litter. Next spring, spray with bordeaux mixture as the new growth begins and repeat in 10 days.

4. Just the opposite. The plant is likely under less stress this year than last. Usually when a plant goes into a heavy reproductive cycle, is an indication that death or near-death stress is coming on. Part of nature's assurance of survival of the species. Also, when many trees have a very heavy year of bearing fruit, the following year is usually a skip or very low fruit production. So, as long as the trees appear healthy otherwise, you have nothing to worry about.


Q: Will peonies eventually die off if the foliage is completely cut off at the end of the bloom period each year? (Valley City, N.D.)

A: Absolutely! The foliage is needed to make carbohydrates to store in the root system for growth and blooming next year.


Q: Can you tell me what is wrong with my peony bush? There were lots of buds on it, but then they dry up. (McVille, N.D.)

A: From your description, it sounds as if it could have been a combination of Botrytis, anthracnose and leaf spot. Allow the plant to remain as is this summer and then cut everything back this fall. With the emergence of new growth next spring, put down a protective spray of bordeaux mixture, zineb or captan.


Q: When is the best time to dig up peonies to transplant them somewhere else? Also, when is the best time to transplant a bleeding heart? My peony had made seeds but I don't know if they are mature. They vary in color from very light tan to a black but they are all hard. If I plant these will they grow? (E-mail reference, Powers Lake, N.D.)

A: Peonies are best planted in the fall. The roots need time to establish before winter closes in, so if you can’t get it done between August and September you are better off delaying it until next fall. With the bleeding heart, you are better off waiting until spring just as new growth is emerging. Yes, eventually those seeds would become blooming peony plants. Sow them about an inch deep in the fall and water them in. You should see some young plants emerging the next spring, and in about three or so years have them blooming for you.


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