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Learning from a Chief Peonyologist in Alaska

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

When you think peonies, you’d never think Alaska. However with extremely long hours of day light, cool temperatures and virtually no “predators” to the plants (ie. deer, moose, insects), this US state has become the new hot spot to grow one of the industry’s most sought after flowers. It was a dream to spend a week on the farm at Scenic Place Peonies with Founder and Chief Peonyologist, Beth Van Sandt. As many of you know, we purchased land in Nova Scotia, Canada and have always toyed with the idea of Franzie's Flower Farms. I love the "simplicity' that comes with growing peonies, a short harvest season and dry storing in particular, so when Kelly Shore of Petals by the Shore asked if I wanted to come along on an Alaskan Peony Retreat and Growing Workshop, I was all ears.

Just days before this, my husband and I experienced a devastating fire which took our entire apartment. One minute we're sipping wine and munching on popcorn and the next minute we're watching our apartment burn. Needless to say my nerves were shot and this trip was such a breath of fresh air. To suddenly have closed one door and all of a sudden be dreaming of opening another, this was due one simple flower, the peony.

Let me tell you, harvesting these peonies is no joke. You have a very small window to "make your whole year" so to speak. Generally speaking, peony farms are selecting Early, Mid and Late bloomers to expand and get the most out of their growing season. The most popular colors, which are set by us flower designers due to our clients request, are White/Cream, Blush, Pink and Red. So you guessed it, that's what all these farmers were focusing on.

Let me give you the down-low when it comes to peony harvesting (and what totally explains that high price tag we pay). First of all, growing peonies is a HUGE investment. You should buy roots a year in advance to planting and then plant the following fall. From when they are in the ground to harvesting your first batch is going to run you 2-3 years. Let's not forget about the initial purchase price of the roots and the maintenance to keep them going without bringing anything in during that time. Also, you need to think "bigger" as your goal (especially if you're a commercial grower) in order to continue to expand. This means more irrigation, larger water tanks, more land, etc. Here's the fine print - you won't know how you're peonies will do until year 2 or 3 so better be prepared for failure to smack you in the face if they don't bloom exactly how you want them to. Or just remain extremely positive and talk to your flower babies every day. That's my plan at least.

Now let's talk about labor. The peony, or diva as I like to call her, is "touched" 8 different times. From cutting to stripping the leaves, to grading the buds of the flowers to hydrating the peonies before they go into dry storage. The list goes on and on. The even more fun part, you're looking for botrytis the entire 8 times you're picking up that single stem. That's a whole other blog but essentially botrytis is satan. So when you're processing over 1k stems per day to ship out, and they're being inspected 8 different times for perfection, well you can do the math on how labor intensive that is!

This blog should really be a multiple part series as there is so much to cover. However, I'm lucky that I finally got a blog up, first time since December (which is embarrassing and I'm pretty sure I say that every time I blog)!

So the high-level plan is this:

2018: Buying 200 peony plants

2019: Planting said peony plants in Nova Scotia, Canada

2022: Harvesting our first Franzie's Flower Farm crop of Peonies for the local market

If you've made it this far, thank you! You rock and clearly love peonies as much as I do. When I started this blog, I had all the intensions in the world to make it longer but showing up with something short and sweet is better than not showing up at all, right?! So I commend you my flower friend for sharing your time with me and I leave you with this.

It all starts with a DREAM.

Add FAITH, and it becomes a BELIEF.

Add ACTION, and it becomes a part of LIFE.

Add PERSEVERANCE, and it becomes a GOAL in sight.

Add PATIENCE and TIME, and it becomes a dream come TRUE.

Above: One of my favorite arrangements I made with fresh cut peonies, lilacs, wild roses, garlic and other amazing Alaskan wild floral bounty.

#2018 #Peonies #Alaska #Workshop

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