Happy New Year to all our dear peony enthusiasts. Today I pause after a busy Holiday Season and look back at 2020 here on our peony farm. Being a peony farm amidst all the crop farms around us has now been accepted amongst the generations of family owned farms. We planted our first peony roots here in 2007. At first, ‘locals’ shied away from us as ‘flower farmers’ were unheard of in this area. Now its fun to walk into the post office and grocery store and hear people ask, ‘how are the flowers doing this season’? Being able to spread some peony joy has certainly been a Godsend this year. May 2021 also cause each one of us to spread some joy to others during these trying times.
At the start of 2020, Becky was preparing her peony presentations for regional garden clubs and events. Most of her in-person presentations were canceled due to the corona virus so thank the good Lord for technology and ZOOM. She is now a pro and soon will be launching her 2021 online peony presentations to various garden clubs. If interested, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Winter here on the peony farm was very mild last year. Sure we had a few nights of -20F and snowfall was also manageable. We had some snow early on but most of our snow arrived in March. Seems like just about the time that I thought winter was over, along came another batch of snow and colder temps.
Spring finally arrived in mid-April as the peony soldiers started to wake up. The snow melting and subsequent April showers provided the much needed moisture for the peonies. All seemed great on the peony farm until we reached mid-May. Some of the early to mid blooming peonies had set there buds and wham! Three nights of 20F besieged our area. The peony fields south of our home saw many rows of peonies laying on the ground. If you’ve ever seen peonies after a few nights of 20F, your first thought is ‘oh no, they are dead’! Needless to say our phones were ringing, emails and IM’s asking ‘what should we do’? Not to be harsh, but our answer was ‘nothing’. I am just amazed at the resiliency of these crazy plants. One day they are covered in frost and a couple of days later they are standing tall again after warmer temps. Yes all the rows of peonies that were laying on the ground recovered. However, now we were faced with the visual results from the hard frosts…bud damage. Yes friends, the peony buds that were set were lost for this year. With Peony Field Days on our radar screen, should we open to the public with 25% to 40% less color due to bud damage?
Knowing we are an outside venue with loads of space to social distance, Peony Field Days 2020 was a resounding ‘YES’ lets open some of our peony fields to the public. The pent up demand to be outside certainly was evident as 3500+ plus people attended during the four days we were open to the public. When we first purchased this farm, our number one goal was to be a blessing to those who stepped foot on our property. Whether it be family, friends, neighbors, visitors, gardeners, photographers, artists and nature lovers, we wanted our farm to be a peaceful place to enjoy God’s creation. Those of you who I spoke and prayed with in the fields, thank you for sharing that you had lost a loved one recently, did not feel safe in your own home living close to the riots and were thankful we were open for Peony Field Days! Whether you like peonies or not, may not have been the reason for attending! Being able to see, smell and touch peonies is an afterthought to the joy of just being outside! Peony Field Days 2020 I will never forget you who stopped to talk with me, photographers, artists (who have a special place in my heart as my mom was an impressionistic oil and water color artist), families having a picnic lunch and yes the dogs that were having just as much fun as their handlers. Thank you again for all of you who came out for our Peony Field Days!
Peony bloom time is one of our top 3 busiest outside times of the year. How to photograph the various stages of blooms from the very early to very late varieties for the website is beyond challenging for me as the photographer. It has taken many years and various photography equipment to hon my skills. This year was especially challenging due to the lack of blooms, sunny skies and yes a few days of 85F temperatures. Being at the right place at the right time surely is exasperating during the hot days as the blooms would blow out almost immediately. Becky too was busy photographing our social media pics and experienced the same issues with fewer blooms and the high temperatures blowing blooms out. ‘Why not start up one of our coolers ,dear’? She said, ‘that would be great, dear’! Having a couple of walk-in coolers saved the day as she could take out blooms to photograph and then return them to the cooler. Thank the good Lord for coolers! Our resident hybridizer, Dan Zabel, continues his quest for the latest and greatest new peony. His skills continue to amaze us as he puts miles and miles on in the peony rows waiting for that ‘special’ time to make his crosses. It’s like Christmas in June when our new seedlings bloom for the first time. We can’t wait till this spring when hundreds of his crosses bloom for the first time.
Our weeding crew continued to do a great job in the fields hand weeding all our peonies. They are a great bunch of guys who we’ve seen a few move on to other jobs and college and also some new guys who trained in to take their places. We are so grateful for their work and award them with DQ breaks often. With our son and daughter gone off to their full time jobs, having the ‘boys’ around here helps me out in other areas of farm and landscape work.
Late June to mid August is haying time on the farm. Now its time to give back to our fertilizer production team excellent hay for the wonderful composted cow manure they provide in our peony and hay fields. Our cows only eat what we grow to make sure we know what goes in and out of them. Being a chemical free farm can only be accomplished with our own hay. We do not buy any hay as most of that hay contains chemicals. Thankfully we had a great haying season so the cows for now, are happy with their food. They have also learned and now fear our German Shepard, Heidi. When the cows think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, we call Heidi to the rescue. She has learned that cows and calves do not belong outside of the fence. Many times I have and probably will say, ‘Heidi, get the cows!’ and she knows to herd them back into their respective pasture and loafing area. Wow is this cool or what? Now we do not have to herd them back in! Redd on the other hand who is our 11 1/2 year old red lab, doesn’t care. All he wants to do is sniff around for birds, critters and yes, rolling in not ready to compost manure. We still love him though and hope he can be with us for a few more years. The groundwork is already in process for another German Shepard, but the answer from Becky is ‘NO’! Maybe if she forgets the first two years of Heidi’s life she’ll warm up to that idea?
Last summer, Linda, our bookkeeper called me and asked if I realized how many peony orders we have received so far? I said ‘no, I haven’t added them up yet’. Needless to say she informed me of the year to date number and lets just say I gasped for air and sat down. Our orders were up 450% above the previous year. At our 2020 planning meeting, I told the crew that I was praying for a 300% increase in orders for 2020. Are you kidding? 450%! Holy moly rocky did He answer my prayers or what? ‘Thank you Lord’ is all I could say! Knowing that the Lord will not allow me anything more than I can handle, after good oxygen flow returned, I said, ‘lets go’! I would also like to thank you our new and returning customers for entrusting us with organically nurturing the peonies you purchased from us. The growth we have experienced is a testament to your willingness to purchase your peonies from us instead of other sources. You truly are part of the Swenson Gardens peony family!
The second busiest time of the year is our digging, dividing, processing and shipping season that starts in late August through early October. Knowing the number of orders we need to fulfill this year was heavy on my heart as I continued to have a full-time day job and a full-time peony job. For 38-years I have been in the leasing IT, healthcare and material handling equipment industry. I really don’t have 8-weeks of vacation built up nor can we fulfill all these orders unless I am involved from dawn till dusk everyday. Remember earlier when I said ‘the Lord will not allow me anything more than I can handle’? Well because of COVID and other circumstances, I was informed that my leasing career is over. Again, ‘thank you Lord’ is all I could say after receiving the call. He knew it was time for me to leave my day job and focus ALL my time and effort on Swenson Gardens. After a few hours of mourning, it was time to saddle up the tractors and get digging!
Now blessed with two tractors and two full time operators, let the digging begin. Never in the history of Swenson Gardens did we ever have 4 digits worth of orders to fulfill. The mainstay of our business is to provide the freshest peony roots to our customers by digging, dividing, processing and into the coolers within 24-hours. Even with this many orders, that goal was met after I was asked, sort’ve nicely, to not dig anymore peony roots and instead put my skills at dividing peonies with the other dividers. Danny, ran both tractors side by side with two crews on each tractor. Twas a sight to see as he was able to dig more without me than with me at the helm. I’m ok with that! You go Danny!
Since we mainly employ women, men and boys during the peony season, a couple people asked if their daughters could work for us? Becky and I talked this over and it was a resounding ‘yes’ to hire them. Needless to say the competition began between the boys vs girls or girls vs boys. We were so impressed with the girls (and boys too) that next year they will for sure be back. It is so cool to be able to work with younger kids and afford the chance for them to develop wonderful working skills. Their parents are also very appreciative and notice a difference in their kids after working here. Not sure if it is their new found work ethics or the DQ’s, cookies and donuts that are available to them most of the time.
Our first dig is our busiest with USDA growing zones 2-5 orders. This includes shipping, pick up and our peony barn sale roots. The weather was great as no rain was received so the crews could work Monday – Saturday. The crews pace quickened knowing the amount of orders and the window needed to complete this task. Knowing how busy we were in 2019 and that orders were up 450% from last year, we were done 1-week earlier than last year! Really? Yup! I am so thankful for our team and the increased efficiency we implemented during our planning meeting. Oh and me not running a tractor helped too! So for 2021, I’m praying for a 200% increase in sales to make up for the 1-week ahead of schedule digging window.
The international dig and USDA growing zones 3-8a orders saw a change in sunny days to now rainy days and nights. This slows down the digging crew but thankfully they slogged through the rows having to revert to hand digging some of the varieties as the tractor was not able to get into those rows.
The third busiest time outside during the season is planting. With all our new Swenson Gardens exclusive seedlings, planting has increased substantially over just propagating named varieties. With planting, our fields are prepared 2-3 years in advance with composted cow manure, cover crops and trade secret hi brix soil amendments. Now to fit planting in a weather window that is not too dry or wet. Once we have a window, let the fun begin. Our team was able to plant 3400 peonies over 1 1/2 days. This too is a record knowing that each root is hand placed and positioned correctly before they are hilled over with the tractor attachment. Needless to say there was some sore backs and knees from all the bending. We choose to do hand placement versus just throwing them in the furrow and hilling them over. Yes it takes more time but the results are amazing.
After planting its time to clean up, organize and store everything for next season. Becky loves to do this as it signifies the end of the season at least outside work for her and most of the team. Now we wait for the ground to freeze with 2-4 inches of frost so we can cover all the first year plants. Of course this year with the late freeze the ground was not ready until mid-December. Yours truly was not able to help mulching this year as my rotator cuff finally went and surgery was on November 19th. No lifting more than a cup of tea for 3-months? Sorry Danny, no can do this year so you will have to handle this part too. Instead of using corn stalks that we baled from neighbors fields, we bought a semi-load of oat straw from northern Minnesota. The round bales went through our bale buster implement and now the outside work is done! Vacation time for me? Nope!
The 3000+ peony photos and website upgrades needed to be done in order to launch our 2021 website. Thankfully most of the work was done before surgery so minor additions and corrections were needed after the disk was dropped off at our webmaster. Our 2021 website launched on December 12th. A few changes were done to our shopping cart experience by switching to Square instead of PayPal so hopefully this is working out well while placing an order. Ok it is now time for a few weeks vacation and healing for my shoulder as we prepare for the spring. Seeing white outside in our fields is a soothing feeling knowing what will be changing as we start this process all over. To be honest, I already miss it knowing the joy our fields brings to others as well as ourselves. Have a Happy New Year and look forward to hearing from you or seeing you in the peony fields!