Swenson Gardens is truly a family affair! Love for peonies came from their grandparents many years ago. The Swenson family love arose after seeing the vibrant yellow color of Bartzella in bloom, a plant that still stands to be a family favorite. In 2002, they planted their first commercial bare-root peonies on 1 ½ acres of leased land. After five years of caring for the plants and learning more about the market, they decided to cast a bigger vision. In 2007, they purchased a 40-acre farm near Howard Lake, Minnesota where they now nurture thousands of peony plants in hundreds of different varieties. Growing peonies without chemicals, fungicides, and pesticides has been a mainstay of their business since the beginning. Now, Swenson Gardens is the largest chemical-free peony grower in the world. Plenty of hard work and love goes into growing peonies the natural way, God’s way.
By mid-May the party begins as the first peony blooms appear. Rows of corals introduce the season, followed by reds, yellows, pinks, and showy tri-color blooms. Swenson Gardens’ fields are open to the public just two weekends per year during Peony Field Days. Thousands of gardeners visit the farm to enjoy the variety of colors and make plans to incorporate peonies into their own gardens. Many folks are amazed at the stem strength and beautiful foliage of these newer varieties – definitely not our grandmother’s peonies! Photographers and painters enjoy lingering over the rainbow of colors, trying to capture the perfect image, while garden club members take careful notes to educate themselves about these exceptional flowers.
The peony market is awash with two imposters: tissue culture roots and potted peony plants. Tangled root masses are one result of the short cut tissue-culture process. This photo is an example of a peony from original rootstock, which is sold by Swenson Gardens. Learn more about the pitfalls of tissue culture roots in the FAQs page. Potted peony plants are grown in a greenhouse using multiple chemical applications, and are most often sold in the spring during the peak season for annuals. While potted peonies offer the instant gratification of stems, foliage and flowers, they do not provide the vigor, strength and longevity of bare rootstock. The transition from the climate-controlled environment of a greenhouse to a garden frequently causes plant shock, resulting in timid looking plants with tangled storage roots, anemic blooms and weak stems. In contrast, Swenson Gardens’ customers often comment on the exceptionally large and healthy rootstock they receive, which provide the necessary energy for their first year of growth. Peonies are an investment in the future. Please do not succumb to the imposters. Be wise and patient by purchasing Swenson Gardens’ bare-root peonies.
Years before the first peony blooms appear, Swenson Gardens begins preparing the soil of the new fields. It all starts with the cows. The herd of Dexters, known as the Fertilizer Production Team, is the source of the composted manure that is first applied over the hay fields. Then a mixture of gypsum and Milorganite is spread before the ground is plowed under. A cover crop is planted and the same materials are applied again before the soil is plowed for the last time. Finally, planting can commence. Using this sustainable, chemical-free fertilization technique welcomes micronutrients and microorganisms into the soil. That is a good thing, because chemical fertilizers only address what happens above ground and repeated applications can create sterile soil. Taking care of our precious dirt provides the best possible growing site for the bare root peonies and means years of beautiful peony enjoyment for you!
What do you get when you buy a peony from Swenson Gardens? We sell only bare root peonies, which are shipped and planted in the fall. Bare root peonies grow faster, are more disease resistant, and adapt much more quickly to your soil than potted plants sold in garden and home centers. You can expect from us a freshly dug and well-formed root, featuring at least 4 eyes. Everything we sell is from original rootstock, which produces the healthiest plants. No cheap, tissue-culture roots are ever sold through Swenson Gardens.
Late August is digging season! Our crew carefully digs plants that are 3-5 years old and the roots are washed and cut in to sections, called divisions. Each division is individually tagged with the variety name. To make planting easier, a red rubber band is also attached to the stems of intersectionals, which indicates the proper soil depth for your USDA zone. This feature is a Swenson Gardens exclusive. Your root is then carefully packed in moist peat moss, boxed, and shipped via Priority Mail or another expedited method.
Planting your bare root peony is not difficult, but it does take some effort to do the job right. The time and energy invested will reward you with a healthy plant, lovely foliage, and gorgeous blooms for decades. Click here for written planting instructions or click here for our video “How To Plant Peonies”. If you live in USDA zones 2-4, mulching is needed to protect your first year peony before its first winter. This step is not needed in the warmer climates of USDA zones 5-8.
In 2013, Swenson Gardens purchased all of Roger F. Anderson’s herbaceous hybrid, Lactiflora, intersectional hybrid, and tree peony seedlings. Roger has been their mentor and friend since 1998, and it is truly an honor to carry on his work. Their goal is to produce more beautiful and spectacular peony varieties by building on his foundation of 45+ years of hybridizing. Daniel Zabel, an employee of Swenson Gardens for more than 10 years, is following in Roger’s footsteps by carrying his seedlings to the next generation. You will see his originations in the next few years.