Non-flowering woody plants
A lack of flowers from woody plants, both in containers and the ground, can be frustrating. There are many possible reasons why a plant fails to flower and it is best to consider the causes and solutions before removing a plant from the garden.
Plants affected: Woody plants
Main causes: Many reasons are possible, including weather and poor pruning
Why don't plants flower?
Non-flowering is a problem that can affect many woody plants, whether grown in the soil or in containers. There are many possible causes, including poor pruning, planting in the wrong place and environmental causes. Generally, non-flowering is short lived and the problem can be remedied successfully.
Failure to flower is often just one symptom of an unhappy plant. There may be signs at other times of the year that indicate something is wrong. Weak growth can be a sign that the plant is being grown in the wrong place, while lush growth could be a result of excessive moisture or feeding. Signs of stress, such as wilting, indicate lack of moisture.
Cultivation causes and control
We may not like to admit it, but there are times when a gardener's actions can be part of the problem. Here are some of the things to avoid, and ways of helping.
Young plants and newly planted shrubs need time to establish; a period when their energy is directed towards making roots and shoots. Once established (which can sometimes take several years), they should flower freely. Older specimens that are transplanted may also fail to flower when expected due to their energy being directed towards root growth or, simply, they do not have enough roots to obtain the water and nutrients required. See our advice in trees and shrubs: establishment problems for further information.
Plants may have been poor specimens to begin with. Those with weak or non-existent root systems will take a long time to establish. Those bought in flower sometimes take a while to settle back into flowering mode. Some seed-raised plants never flower well because of their genetic make-up, so it can sometimes be a better bet to grow healthy cultivars which are known to perform.
Pruning at the wrong time of year or in the wrong way can literally cut off dormant flower buds; the coming year’s flower display. Hard pruning stimulates leafy growth instead of flowers, so keep pruning to a minimum if flowering is sparse. See the tree and shrub pruning profiles listed in the links below.
Environmental causes and control
Growing conditions play a greatly influence how a plant flowers. Most of the problems and causes below are to do with the site and conditions and, of course, the weather.
Shrubs often fail to flower after drought, including drought the previous year. Rhododendrons, camellias and other spring-flowering plants initiate flower buds in that late summer period and drought stress at this time can lead to poor flowering. Mulch damp ground in mid- to late spring and water if necessary during periods of drought.
Plants grown in a frost pocket or in an exposed, windy position could have their flowers damaged; while sun-loving plants grown in shade (or shade-lovers in sun) will be reluctant to flower. Move plants to a more sheltered site, or give them their favoured growing conditions; sometimes shade can be remedied by pruning back surrounding plants to improve light levels.
A wet season, especially in spring and summer, can result in lush growth, but few flowers. This is usually temporary and the plant should flower normally in drier years. In containers, excess moisture can kill plant roots due to a lack of oxygen and subsequent root rot. Ensure pots have adequate drainage and raise plants up on feet in winter.
Impoverished soil will affect flowering. Feeding should help. Apply sulphate of potash around the shrub in spring and if plant vigour is generally low, apply a balanced fertiliser over the soil as well. Composts used in pots have sufficient nutrients to provide food for six to eight weeks after potting on. After this, plants need additional feeding to maintain healthy growth, apply controlled-release fertilisers once a year in spring, or liquid feeds more frequently (weekly to fortnightly).
Insufficient ripening of the wood
Some plants will not set flower buds without a warm period to ripen the wood. Wisteria and Campsis flower best on a south-facing wall. Hibiscus needs a long, hot summer to flower well. In cool summers, or on north- and east-facing sites, these plants may struggle to flower.
Excess nitrogen encourages leafy growth at the expense of flowers and is usually a problem where gardeners have applied high-nitrogen feeds or mulches, such as sulphate of ammonia, poultry manure or farmyard manure.
Root-bound plants will rapidly suffer from drought and lack of food. If this happens, pot on to the next pot size. If plants are in the largest size pot that can be managed, top dress or remove excess compost before replacing it in the same pot. Ensure plants are kept well fed and watered.
Old age, virus or disease may weaken plants, reducing flowering. Renovation, replacement or control may be necessary to improve the display.
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