Ants, Peonies and Rhododendrons!

Reluctant is the politest word I can think of to describe spring this year. I’m probably not alone in muttering various other stronger things under my breath, and I’ve been told the old saying of “It’s New England, if you don’t like the weather just wait an hour” one too many times this cold, wet spring!

But early summer really is here and this week’s crop of urgent garden questions proves it. Many of you have called or stopped in with questions that ranged from peonies that just didn’t bloom, to ants on peony buds, and continued concerns about winter damage on evergreens.

The challenge to peonies is in planting them too deep. Being planted too deep is the most common reason they won’t bloom. Even if you originally planted them correctly but add fresh mulch to your beds each year you may end up burying the peony crown too deeply by accident. We get so many questions on this we’ve adopted a name to the answer “the peony too deep thing”. There is very little mystery to non blooming peonies, they really do know if the growing points, or eyes, are buried more than about 2 inches beneath the soil surface. The best way to ensure lots of flower buds is to gently dig away extra soils and mulch each spring. Early in the season peony shoots look like red eyes on a potato and once they’ve begun to emerge from the ground I gently use my fingers to move out any extra soil or mulch that has build up on top of the roots. I also take advantage of this one on one peony time to put up my peony hoops and to fertilize them with some organic Espoma Plant Tone. Peony blooms are so heavy that even a light rain will cause them to droop and flop if you haven’t supported them.

I think one of the Google Searches that probably gets 85 billion hits every year is ”Ants on peony buds”. Half the answers say the ants are bad for peonies and the other half say ants are needed for peony blooms to open. They are both wrong.

Ants are attracted to and eat the sweet nectar secreted by the peony bud. Ants do not harm the plants, and the plants do not require ants to open. My grandmother loved peony blooms and had vases full of them during their peak bloom time. To avoid bringing ants into the house and having them scurry around her dining room table during Sunday supper she would rinse the cut buds off in the sink. She always did this and never had to explain to dinner guests that the ants on the table were from the flowers not bad housekeeping habits – I, always in a rush and thinking a good shake between the front garden and vase would do the trick, was not so lucky. Many apologies Mark and Robin.

Reluctant is also a word I can use to describe many of you when I told you to trust me and NOT prune down your “dead” rhododendrons! Many of you were absolutely convinced that those rhododendrons suffering from late winter burn were crispy critters. Patience pays off and for those of you who took my advice and waited, you have been rewarded with lots of new green growth on those brown stems. I will admit that they don’t look perfect. There was significant winter die back on many evergreens this spring but the signs of life are promising! Here is a picture of my own rhododendrons in the garden of benign neglect from back in early May and one from just this week!

Early Spring Winter Burn on my own rhododendron – the same rhododendron in early June!


County Land Trust Garden Tour is happening on July 23rd! Enjoy a great day of touring local garden gems on this self guided tour. Tickets go on sale this weekend and can be purchased here – cash or check only.

Keep watering, keep weeding and remember that there is nothing a good layer of mulch won’t fix!
Michelle and Team Lakeview!