Farm & Studio Journal

an Ode to Peony Mike

Memorial Day is a time of mixed emotions for our family.  It is a solemn time as we remember loved ones lost, but it is also a time of great excitement, partly because it usually means our peonies are in bloom.  Peonies are a big crop for us and they're my (Susan's) personal favorite flower (at least this week).  I'm drawn to flowers with heavy fragrance and there's nothing quite as fragrant as a fluffy peony.  Their bloom time is not long--we harvest them over the course of two short weeks--but we employ some creative cold storage techniques that allow us to enjoy these beautiful blooms for several weeks into the summer.  Peonies are fantastic in bridal bouquets and few of our designs leave our studio in June and July  without a few of these beauties tucked in. 

peonyfield

This year, our big peony patch in our eastern field came into full bloom.  We expanded the patch in 2012--thanks largely in part to the dozens of peony starts from "Peony Mike" (more on him in a bit) and after patiently waiting for the plants to mature, we now are harvesting hundreds of blooms.  

Walking through this patch is full of surprises.  Most of the varieties are mysteries to us, as they are mostly "passalong plants" and starts we've beg, borrowed or, ahem, stolen....I mean "divided to ensure plant health" from friends' farmsteads and yards.  

peonytrifecta
singlepeonytypes

One of the yards we got lots of peonies from a man I affectionately call "Peony Mike."  I pass his humble homestead right around the half-way point of my drive home from the farm.   His barns and outbuildings undoubtedly hold lots of vintage treasures, but it was his huge side yard filled with hundreds of peony plants that caught my eye.  I actually almost ran of the road the first time I spotted the peony patch and ever since then, I slow down and rubberneck every time I drive by it.  

In the spring of 2012, I decided to stop and see if I might be able to sweet talk my way into getting a few blooms from the patch.  I pulled in the driveway and sheepishly knocked on the door.  I knocked again.  No one was home.  Or at least no one answered the door. I meandered into the yard casually and gawked at all the blooms.  I just HAD to have some. I was determined to get some.  I stopped again the next time I drove by.  And the next time.  And the next time.  I left notes.  I left cash (I *may* have clipped a couple of buds from a bush that was overloaded with blooms).  I left more notes.  No one was ever home.  No one ever called me back.  After about the eighth time, I felt like a full-fledged peony stalker.  Despite all this, I remained undeterred.  I wanted those peonies.  I needed those peonies!   It had become a serious obsession or sickness!  Finally, after about the 8th time stopping and by some strange stroke of luck, I drove by and saw a man mowing the lawn.  I think I may have scared the dude with my overly eager smile and wave and desperate plea for peonies.  The man's name was Mike; or "Peony Mike" as I programmed into my phone--and he explained that he worked nights and was usually asleep when I stopped by (oops!  Sorry to disturb you!) and that it was his childhood home and his late parents had grown peonies and sold them to florists.  The field was getting very overgrown with brambles and weeds and the peonies were starting to be outcompeted by all the other weeds and trees.  He said that he'd be happy to sell me some starts in the fall--the best time to divide them-- and that I should come back when they are in full bloom and mark the ones that I wanted.  I pumped my fist in the air as I drove away.  My peony persistence finally paid off!  

pinkpeony

The next time I drove by, I was armed with color-coded tags, which I wrapped around the stems of plants that had blooms that caught my eye....which was, like, every plant I could reach.  The peonies had seen better days and were being smothered with brambles and were screaming out to me to take them home.   Soon, my friends.  Soon. 

Fast forward about six months and on a cold, overcast fall day, I met my mom at this halfway point in order to divide and dig up some of the peonies that I had marked that spring. I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy and I remember feeling really fatigued and wanted desperately to share the good news with my mom (that's another story for another day).  But I kept my secret and feigned my enthusiasm to dig up peonies, despite the fact I felt like %$#@.  I was exhausted and there were waaaaay more  burs and thorns and evil weeds than I remembered that separated me from those precious peony plants.  After hours of digging, we filled up the bed of the pickup truck with peony starts, handed Mike some cash plus a tip for helping us, and then mom took our bounty back to the farm and I headed back home.  

Mom planted the peonies in a new bed on the East side of the farm, which is off to the right as you drive down the lane.  It's been a battle royale with the weeds, even despite putting down heavy landscape fabric.   Grasses and every type of nemesis weed have taken root in any square inch of bare soil.  I won't lie...we were definitely frustrated by all the weeds.  But the many wars we waged on the weeds finally paid off when it was bursting with buds this May.   It was so fun to finally see so many different varieties of this beautiful plant.  We wish we knew their names, but half the fun is to discover all the varieties.  There are lots of fluffy doubles, along with a really interesting group of "singles" with big yellow centers that have blooms wider than my hand (the photos above don't do them justice!).  

My sister-in-law, Sally, helps with the peony harvest.  

My sister-in-law, Sally, helps with the peony harvest.  

This harvest was definitely worth the wait.  Thanks, Peony Mike.  Your peonies have a happy new home here on the farm.