Fertilizing peonies

Fertilizing peonies is an easy and enjoyable spring task in the perennial flower garden. Peony plants are low-maintenance and don’t require fussy care once established. Even so, many gardeners do like to give them a bit of a bloom boost with a phosphorus-rich fertilizer in the springtime.

Here are the basics for fertilizing peonies:

  • In late winter or early spring, apply a thin layer of compost over the flower bed area (easiest to do before spring growth begins).
  • Once the stems are about a foot high in mid-spring, apply an organic, slow-release granular fertilizer to the soil around the stems of the plant. Good peony fertilizer options include rose food, bulb fertilizer, perennial flower fertilizer, and bone meal.

Read on to learn all about fertilizing peonies!

Peony stems with container of granular fertilizer sitting beside them

Peony feeding basics

Peony plants are low-maintenance once established and can thrive for many years without a single fertilizer application. Many healthy peony plants are not fed with fertilizer at all. Others get a top-dressing of compost every year or two but never receive a packaged fertilizer product. Still, many gardeners like to spoil their plants with consistent soil moisture and supplemental nutrients.

“I always wonder how such opulent blooms can grow from such sturdy, no-nonsense plants; hardy far into the north, they are almost invariably vigorous and health and are capable of keeping their corners of the garden full and fresh six months a year and of standing their ground for decades when left to their own wild ways.”

The Harrowsmith Perennial Garden, by Patrick Lima

Spring peony feeding starts with a simple top-dressing of compost at the end of wintertime. Clear any remaining plant debris from the flower bed and apply an inch of homemade compost over the entire area as an organic mulch. The compost gives the plants a lovely, dark uniform background and will also give them a boost as they come out of dormancy.

Packaged fertilizer products are generally applied later in the spring, once the peonies have grown stems and are starting to put on leaves and flower buds.

Here’s a video I made showing exactly how I fertilize peonies in my garden:

Peony fertilizer options

The following fertilizer types are generally suitable for use as a peony fertilizer:

  • Rose fertilizer
  • Bulb fertilizer
  • Slow-release perennial plant fertilizer
  • Bloom-boosting fertilizer
  • Bone meal

Fertilizing peony plants is very similar to feeding roses in the springtime. A quality organic rose fertilizer, bulb fertilizer, or perennial flower fertilizer will work well for feeding peony plants. Generic bone meal is also a classic peony fertilizer (and is a key ingredient in many rose and flower foods). For a mineral-based peony fertilizer, look for a phosphate rock dust product. Many mushroom composts will do the job quite well.

Check that your peony fertilizer is organic, lower in nitrogen (N), and higher in phosphorus (P). I like to look for products that are OMRI-listed as safe for use in organic growing. Apply the fertilizer sparingly and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and local regulations.

Fertilizing peonies
Peony bud appearing on plant - time to feed the peony garden

When to fertilize peony plants

Apply fertilizer to peonies in the spring when the stems have grown to be about a foot tall (30 cm). The leaves will be starting to unfurl at this point. Frosty nights should be few and far between.

Another telltale sign that it’s time to fertilize peonies is that the first flower buds have started to appear. These tiny flower buds start to become noticeable when the stems just start leafing out. See the photo above for an example of what baby flower buds look like. It’s time to feed the peony plants!

If you do want to feed them twice per year, the second feeding can occur in late summer/early fall to help the roots prepare for winter.

How to feed peony plants

Feed peony plants with a granular, slow-release, organic fertilizer. Most peony fertilizers can be sprinkled on the ground around the plant. Take care to place the fertilizer granules/pellets on the soil around the plant rather than right on top of the plant’s crown (where the stems come up out of the ground). The nutrients need to slowly seep into the surrounding soil so the plant can develop a healthy root system.

Sprinkle on the organic fertilizer in a ring around the peony stems. Try not to apply the fertilizer right on the crown of the plant – the ring of fertilizer should be at least a few inches away from where the stems meet the soil. You can gently work the fertilizer into the top of the ground with gardening gloves or a handheld cultivator. Water the soil area following feeding to start the nutrient delivery process.

Organic fertilizer close up with peony stems in background

Expert tips for fertilizing peonies

Here are some expert tips for fertilizing peonies from flower-growing gurus:

“In the spring, before the foliage has emerged, top-dress the soil with a sprinkle of bonemeal and a light mulch of compost, 2 inches (5 cm) deep. This will feed the new growth during the coming season.”

Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai

“Once established, peonies seem to thrive on benign neglect. But one expert recommends a handful or two of bone meal “about the time the leaves begin to unfold.””

The Harrowsmith Perennial Garden, by Patrick Lima

“In early spring, when herbaceous peony plants are a foot tall, apply a fertilizer formulated for roses; feed again after snipping off dead blooms.”

Martha’s Flowers: A Practical Guide to Growing, Gathering, and Enjoying, by Martha Stewart and Kevin Sharkey

Fertilizing peonies in the perennial flower garden

Many perennials, including peonies, benefit from a start-of-season mulch application of homemade compost. While many of these perennials are also fed fertilizer products early in spring, wait a few weeks more before feeding peony plants.

Watch for the peony stems to appear, grow to about one foot, and start to put up tiny flower buds. Apply slow-release organic fertilizer when the first tiny flower buds appear. Water deeply following peony fertilizer application.

I hope you’ve learned something about peony fertilizer and when to feed these lovely flowering perennials! What kinds/cultivars are you growing this year!?

Fertilizing peonies in the perennial garden
Peony buds in early june before bloom
Flower buds on ‘festiva maxima’ peony plants in early june just before blossoming
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *