Swenson Gardens




For those of you peonies enthusiasts visiting our blog from our social media sites, welcome! If this is your first time visiting our blog check back every once and awhile for more posts. Ok so this doesn’t seem fair and/or maybe even funny to those of you who remember winter, but thought I’d liven it up a bit with this shot. Peonies would definitely not be growing in this scene nor do we have anything close to the mid-teen degrees F temps when I shot this pic. For those of you emailing and calling regarding the temps that we will be experiencing tonight and possibly tomorrow night, peonies are use to this and are way smarter than us mere gardeners. Our gardening friends in Fairbanks, AK, lucky you, as you are warmer than us. Those of you in northern Minnesota, you are fine too. For us in central Minnesota, we are fine too. I’m not concerned with peonies until the temperature gets to 19 degrees F for 2-3 nights in a row. We had that scenario about 10-years ago and even then the plants did fine although a lot of the buds did not bloom. This is normal during a peonies life cycle. For us in the Howard Lake, MN area it looks like high 20’s to low 30’s degree F for the next couple of nights. I’ll leave it up to you gardeners if you want to cover your peonies but please be careful to support any covering as the weight of your material could break the stems if left to them supporting your material. As far as us trying to cover our peonies, I’m ok with the temps that are forecasted so sleep well peonies…and peony gardeners too!




Taking a stroll around our home this afternoon led to some great shots of peonies! The joy and anticipation for us up here is the same no matter if the peonies are just peeking out of the ground, blooming or cutting the bushes to the ground in the fall. It still fascinates me by the passion of peony enthusiasts. It can be winter time and the memories of peonies never fade! Conversations about peonies last for generations!


Seeing the first buds of an early peony variety left me awestruck on this shot. Enough said when you hover your cursor over this pic and expand it to full screen. By the way if you haven’t tried that before, all the pictures on our blog can be expanded to full screen by doing that.


Ok, so which shot of this species peony do you like better? Shooting in manual and focusing in manual allows many changes to your composure. For me I actually like both shots of this species peony.


Last but certainly not least is a shot taken of one of our peony fields. Here you can gauge the bloom time by the peonies growth. This past week and especially yesterday, were very busy with the field crew. All the cornstalk mulch was removed (manually with pitchforks) between the rows in our new field, cultivating and tilling was done between the rows and finally the last field was seeded with an annual cover crop between the rows at 8:15 PM last night. Needless to say they did an unbelievable and we are so proud of our field crew! Thank you young men for the great job and very hard manual labor. We calculated that they walk over 7-miles yesterday in the peony fields! Maybe that’s why are peonies grow so well for us as they have the easiest job on our peony farm and we have the hardest job caring for them without chemicals!




Greetings fellow peony enthusiasts! Moments ago some diffused sunlight peeked out so as noted in a previous post, time to try out my new Sony and the Tamron SP 90mm Di MACRO lens. I am not a fan of using auto focus while shooting a macro lens but alas, prescription glasses to correct my near field astigmatism has allowed me to get back to manual focus. Much, much faster versus the searching that use to transpire. Although this new Tamron is faster than the previous model (and cheaper by the way), I do like manual when composing the shot. Since we are a honey bee safe zone on our farm, please let dandelions live versus spraying them! They are some of the first flowers that give our honey bees the necessary energy after a long winter hibernation.


This is another source of food for honey bees. Yes the dreaded ‘Creeping Charley’. This is one noxious weed that I am not a fan of as it chokes out all good grasses and can take over perennial and vegetable gardens. Even though the macro lens opened up a new view of it, I still think of the work it will take to pull this weed out of our beds. The best way we’ve found is to add another sheet of black plastic over our decaying western red cedar mulch in our beds and add more mulch. It is a never ending battle so if any of you have any chemical free approaches please email us at info@swensongardens.com.


Oh the sweet smells of spring bulbs!


One of our favorite smells in the spring is from our Magnolia Bush. The former owners of our farm said to wait till the next spring and enjoy the fragrance. Wow were they right. This bush is by far a touch of Heaven on earth! Thankfully this scent touches all our senses and each time I smell it, it reminds me that the peonies are a few weeks away from blooming!



Some of our early peonies are starting to wake up. Yes its fun during peony bloom time to see all the colors, but after looking at black soil, the burgundy and green soldiers are back! Once it stops raining this week, the macro lens will most definitely be out shooting the amazing detail of the peonies!



Time to try out our new toy on the peony farm! Before all the rain as of late made our fieldwork impossible, the new rotary tiller made its debut. Wow what a difference 93″ makes versus our current 54″! Now with a 100hp tractor to turn this beast, our tilling time in new peony planting fields prep are greatly reduced.


Oh and Redd likes to ride along too. He definitely likes this rotary tiller better as he doesn’t get bounced around as much like he did with our small tiller and tractor. Maybe its the space he has to fall asleep on the floor whereby on our other tractor he didn’t have any area to sleep!


Bring on another round of cover crops as we get ready to replant peonies again this fall here! For those of you who picked up your bare-root peonies last fall, this was the field east of our driveway that had sunflowers and oats planted. This year we get serious with cover crops as we start to rebuild the soil. Yes we are planting sunflowers again as the birds and wildlife really liked an unlimited food source but one of the cover crops we are using is buckwheat. Not only is buckwheat good as a pollinator source, but it also helps the soil rejuvenate itself for planting our peonies. http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu/buckwheat.php Cornell University is a great resource that we use to determine our cover crops as well as our local USDA agriculture office. There are a couple more cover crops that we are testing and will let you know how they do in a few years. This particular field was not amended when we planted our first peonies here in 2007. Because we were moving thousands of plants from our former field, we didn’t have the time to properly amend the soil like we do now. In 3-5 years, this field will be back to a sea of color like some of you may have seen during our peony field days.


What a difference even one year of cover crops makes to rejuvenate the soil in our future peony field!




Fire on the peony farm! For those of you on our social media sites, this is old news for you but us bloggers need some action too! Yes friends it was a hot evening here a couple of weeks ago. No fears as this was a controlled burn by our local fire department. Burning off the old grass from the last two years encourages new growth. About seven years ago we had planted this field south of the peonies with native prairie grass and pollinators. Unfortunately the noxious canary reed grass took over. Perhaps some year we will try again with natives, but for now we replanted with more invasive ‘good grasses’ like Timothy, Orchard Grass and Fescue. Of course the fertilizer production team is very happy with aforementioned choices of fodder.


As the fire on the peony farm completes its task, a lone fireman cautiously approaches the heart of the fire and extinguishes any remaining hot spots. Thank you to all the local fireman that kept the neighbors, ourselves and most of all, our peonies safe!



So what do tree peonies do in late winter? Well in this case they either pray for snow or an early spring! The lonely old fashion snow fence stands bleakly barren of any snow drifts. Seems like when we put up various snow fences strategically around our gardens and home, snowfall is null in void and of course a few years ago when we didn’t put up the snow fence we had drifts up the peak of our garage! This particular tree peony is one of Roger Anderson’s Japanese tree peony seedlings. Japanese tree peonies seem to fare the best of all the tree peonies that we grow in this USDA zone. Yes dear tree peony lovers we will offer some of Anderson’s tree peony seedlings in a few years. We are growing them from seed so it takes a few more years to propagate tree peonies.


Our formal peony garden or labyrinth as some like to call it, looks rather bare amidst the cornstalk mulch and boxwood’s. The former owners of our farm use to have an Alpine Currant hedge properly manicured that looked spectacular. Since our farm was unoccupied for almost a year before we moved in, this formal garden was amass with every conceivable weeds and grasses. I have to be honest here as I went to a local farm chemical distributor to ask if they could suggest a way to rid the Alpine Currant of the grasses that took over the hedge. Oh sure was the response so it was off to the hardware store to pick up a hand pump sprayer. Well friends, that was the last time we would ever see the Alpine Currant hedge in our formal garden! Not only did it kill the grasses, but it also killed the Alpine Currant even though I used as directed and it said ‘will not harm shrubs’! Man was I sick and this formal garden sat bare for almost 6-years as I couldn’t get a grip on what I had done. To me this confirmed the fact that we will not use any chemicals on our farm! Thankfully we have never used any chemicals on the peonies and now after experiencing the formal garden debacle, last fall we planted 80 new herbaceous peonies in our formal garden.


There’s gold in that there hill for the intersectional/Itoh hybrid and herbaceous peonies! What may seem like a small hill in our north field is actually the cow manure from a year ago that we are composting for applications in our peony, hay and pasture fields. The key to composting at this scale is the fact that the manure from our fertilizer production team needs to winter over one-year in order to kill any weed seeds that may have passed through. We have used the term ‘sustainable, chemical-free peony grower‘ many times in the past but for those of you new to Swenson Gardens,  let me explain. All  the fertilizer, micro-nutrients and micro-organisms applied or generated in our peony fields are organic, chemical-free and mined minerals. All the hay and pasture used for feed receive the same treatments so we know what goes in and what comes out! Our passion for growing peonies this way has been an educational experience to gardeners who may or may not use chemicals. Why apply or use chemicals on peonies since they have already been growing without chemicals for thousands of years? The answer is speed and shortcuts! Why hand weed when you can spray? (Like paragraph two above!) Why use chemical fertilizers that sterilize the micro nutrients and organisms in the soil? Convenience or is that what you are being told by an expert who sells chemical fertilizer? Did grandma or grandpa have experts in 100+-year old farmsteads that still have peonies growing there today? I doubt it! Being a small, family owned peony grower, we cannot compete with the large chemical induced peony growers of the world; however, we can affirm our philosophy with like minded gardeners who choose to purchase their chemical-free bare-root peonies from us! We try to keep our pricing competitive but knowing the labor costs for hand-weeding our fields, maintaining our fertilizer production team and applying mined minerals, we may cost more. If your looking for ‘cheap’ peonies, you may be better off buying them elsewhere. If you are interested in buying sustainable, chemical-free bare-root peonies that are more vigorous and disease resistant than the ‘cheap’ peonies, welcome to the Swenson Gardens peony family!



I should have introduced our new social media and blog theme in the last post called ‘Life on the Peony Farm’. For those of you bloggers, this use to be called ‘peony farm jottings’. This new theme will be featured in our blog on a regular basis and on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Like and share us on our social media sites as we give you a taste of life on our peony farm.

Elvis n Patriot-1

For those of you new to our blog, Elvis Lee on the left, is our new herd sire (bull). Patriot on the right, is Elvis Lee’s first offspring. Though Elvis Lee is only 2 1/2-years old, he is very protective of his family. All our cows are like family to us as they play an integral part in our sustainable, chemical-free peonies operation. Patriot is just a love child! Not only is he a sprinter as he runs around the loafing area at full gait, but he will run to the gate to meet us as he loves to be petted and scratched under his chin. Even Elvis Lee is mellowing out and becoming more friendly by allowing us the scratch his back. Oh what a life!


Though the Purple Martin houses are down and shut for a couple more months, I had to bring out my new camera body for some pics today even though it was only 12 degrees outside. Yes photography friends it was time to move up to full frame. Sorry for the noticeable watermarks, but we’ve found some of our pictures on other sites and had to do something to stop this. All three of these pics were taken with my new Sony A99 mk2. WOW what a camera! Very easy to move up from my Sony A77 mk2 and oh my what joy to be able to see the full palate of colors! Since this body will shoot up to 42mb, had to turn it down to its lowest setting in order to upload our max on the blog of 8mb. The color saturation is amazing and can’t wait to run around our peony fields in bloom! The lens used on these pics is the Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM. Takes quite a distance to shoot wide open but even at 250mm the colors just popped with diffused sun. Since this lens is very heavy, I always use a Monopod to stabilize the perfect shot. ALL the photos on our blog and website are shot through glass and never ran through Photoshop or Light Room in RAW. We want to provide the most true to natural colors of peonies and life on the peony farm pics as possible!



What a crazy week on our peony farm! This photo was taken from our front porch during a tornado and thunderstorm warning on March 6th. With a major cold front slamming into the 60+ degree temps in early March, needless to say we quickly ran to the basement after taking this quick shot and warning sirens going off around us. Since we moved here, we’ve seen two tornado’s. One to the north and one to the SE of us, but thankfully no touchdowns and subsequent damage. We always ask, ‘how many storms has this house been through since being built in 1901’? At lease for us in our tenure here, way too many as of late. In Minnesota, we have a phrase that ‘if you wait 20-minutes the weather will change’. Well the next morning we had 1/2″ of snow on the ground and temps that touched 0 degrees this week. No hail damage here from this storm, but 4 miles west of us the ground was covered with shovel-able hail up to 4″ in diameter! Again, what a crazy week on our peony farm!