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Issue: May 20, 2006

Peonies


Question:

I love peonies. A friend gave me a few of them to plant in my Albuquerque, west mesa yard. They are doing very well. I have three plants near a west wall that has plenty of water from a bubbler. I would like to fill the whole wall area with these beautiful plants, but I know very little about them. When is the best time to start a new plant? What kind of soil? Obviously, they like plenty of water. What about sunlight? They would have full morning sun and shade in the afternoon.

What has caused the buds to fail to open? They look like they may have been infested with some insect that seals up the bud, and it won't open to full bloom. What can I do about it? Should I spray the buds with something? Where is the best place to get peonies?

- Lillian S.


Answer:

Peonies are very beautiful flowering plants. Many people don't realize that they will grow in much of New Mexico. They will do best in the high elevation, cold regions of the state, but they do very well in Albuquerque as well.

Peonies should be planted in the fall. If you plant them in the spring, they may grow but fail to flower the first year. You have time now to prepare the planting bed where you will plant them in the fall. You also have time to search for a source of plants.

Peonies grow in a variety of soils. They prefer well-drained, loamy garden soils but will flower well when grown in typical New Mexico soils. When planting them, dig deeply to prepare for good root development. Mix organic matter and fertilizer (especially phosphate fertilizer) in the soil at the bottom of the planting hole, then place soil with less organic matter and no fertilizer above the amended soil. Spread the roots over this soil and finish filling soil around the roots. Plant them so that the crown (stem just above the roots) is only one or two inches below the surface of the soil (five to six inches deep if you plant tree peonies). They may grow if you plant them too deeply but will often fail to flower.

I grow peonies on the north side of a wall so that the roots become very cold and remain cold throughout the winter. Your east-facing wall is also a good location. Peonies will tolerate cold much more readily than they tolerate heat. On the north side of a wall, the shade reduces evaporation, so the plants will have a more constantly moist soil. Water deeply each time you water, and then wait two weeks before watering again. During the winter when they are dormant, they will need very little water. In the spring when growth appears, begin watering as described above. Mulch will also help protect the roots from drying.

Peonies are generally thought of as having very few disease problems. There are a few diseases that cause leaf and bud blight; however, in our dry climate, they should not be a problem if the plants are cut to the ground each fall after the leaves die. (Do not prune tree peonies to the ground.) Excessive watering may cause problems, but the most probable cause of your peonies' failure to flower is our dry winds. If the plants are exposed to drying winds, the buds may fail to open. This may happen even if the soil is kept moist. Protection from the wind and afternoon sun should help prevent this problem.

There are many nurseries on the internet that advertise peonies for sale. You can also ask at garden centers to see if they will have some peony roots for sale this fall. Since you have time, you can search for the varieties and colors you want.

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For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension publications World Wide Web site at http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h.

Send your gardening questions to:
Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith
NMSU Cooperative Extension Service
9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112
Albuquerque, NM 87112

Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.