Dear Miss Floribunda,
Five years ago, I moved into a house with a garden notable for beds of beautiful peonies. For the past two springs, however, some groups have not bloomed despite plenty of buds. Adding fertilizer didn’t help. To add to my disappointment, ants overran the plants that did bloom. I am told this is because of the sweetness of their sap. Ant infestation has been a recurring problem, and has kept me from bringing bouquets of peonies into the house. Since I’m ecologically responsible I don’t want to use any toxic chemicals, inside the house or out. But what can I do?
Ants in my Plants on Lancer Avenue
The latter problem is easily solved. Plant mint with your peonies and ants will stay away. I know this firsthand because I have a quite a nice collection of peonies myself, thanks to gifts and advice from my Chinese-American friend Virginia Li, whom I truly believe knows all there is to know about the plant she calls “the king of flowers.” Though she knows I love roses – “the queen of flowers” – she’s told me that she would never give me a rose bush because in Chinese culture it is believed that giving a friend a thorny plant will predispose the friendship to quarrels. It was she who suggested planting mint with the peonies to keep ants away. This was so effective that I then planted mint around the foundation of my house to effectively end formicular forays into my kitchen.
I asked Virginia why your peonies would bud yet not bloom. She believes they are overcrowded and suggests you divide them next October. She cautioned against dividing them before then, even when blooming season is over. Peonies do not like to be disturbed until fully dormant. She also speculated that the fertilizer you used was too high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen in the soil also keeps peonies from blooming.
She advised using bone meal, which is organic, safe and slow-acting – and sweetens our overly acidic soil, which peonies dislike. As a dog owner, I advise that you dig in the bone meal during a heavy rain or else water down the area thoroughly with a hose. My dog, Barcus O’Drool, has invited all his canine friends over whenever I’ve made the mistake of applying bone meal to my garden in dry weather. They gobbled up most of the bone meal in no time, and, of course, disturbed the plants as well.
For more on this and other gardening lore, you are invited to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 21, at the home of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder, 3909 Longfellow Street. The highlight of the morning will be a plant exchange, so there’s a good chance you can acquire some irises to enhance those peonies. We also have a plant exchange in the fall, so you are welcome to share your extra peonies with us then.