In my garden, the lilacs bloom first and then the peonies closely follow. Seems like the same is happening across the country as the questions about these beautiful bloomers have been rolling in.
To start, there are many styles and types of peonies, but I am going to stick to the herbaceous group which includes the old fashioned and Chinese members. These plants are the ones that die back to the ground each winter and start with new growth each spring. They love to be in spots with well-drained soil and that gets at least five to six hours of sunlight per day. This is really important as the plant needs a lot of energy to not only regrow each spring but to also put out some pretty spectacular blooms.
On average, this plant needs about an inch of water per week, which is relatively small given the size of the plant.
The biggest mistake the average homeowner makes with their peonies is fertilizing them with the wrong ratios. Peonies that get fed nitrogen spend their time growing leaves instead of flowers. Even the slow-release fertilizer that we use on the lawn can inhibit the blooms if the plant is too close to the grass. Instead, feed your peony with a fertilizer that has a high middle number. The phosphorous will not only encourage more flowers, it also helps develop root growth below the soil, making you plant even bigger.
When purchasing a new peony, make sure to plant the root ball at exactly the same height as it is in the pot. If planted too low, peonies can take their time blooming, often more than three years. The same is true if you are planning to divide a large bush. This is best done in the fall. Gently dig up the entire plant and then divide with a sharp knife or spade. Don’t be surprised if your peony gets a little sulky after being split and refuses to flower for a long time.
Peonies and ants are also a hot topic. Some believe the ants are hurting the flowers, while others say the ants are helping the flowers open. Neither is actually true. The ants are simply feeding off the sweet sap that the flower buds secrete as they are growing and opening. Whether you have ants on you plant or not, they will still bloom just fine. Just remember that if you are taking cut flowers to put in a vase, make sure you shake them upside before they come into the house.
My final little tip about peonies — cut lots of the unopened blooms and wrap the stems in kitchen wrap and put them in the fridge. They will last in the cool dark space with no water for eight to 12 weeks. When you need some, simply bring them out and put them in a vase with warm clean water. This way, you can enjoy them all summer long — instead of the two weeks that they actually flower!