The fourth annual Homer Peony Celebration kicks off a month of events and activities to recognize local peony farms and farmers.
Homer’s Pioneer Revitalization Task Force was formed in 2020, comprised of community members dedicated to the goal of beautifying Pioneer Avenue, with Homer receiving the official designation of “The City of Peonies” years prior.
Initial beautification efforts included peony-themed murals painted on businesses around town, peony bulbs planted in gardens along the area, a peony-themed fundraiser hosted in a parking lot, and giant paper peonies made and distributed around town, among other activities and events. Today, the annual Homer Peony Celebration is a monthlong explosion of not only the colorful and fragrant flowers, but farm tours, walking tours and dinner tours, as well as art classes, workshops and indoor and outdoor displays and exhibits of all things peony.
In addition to the peony-focused activities, the celebration includes a variety of community events hosted by local businesses and nonprofit organizations, including the Art Shop Gallery, Bunnell Street Arts Center, Grace Ridge Brewery, Homer Brewing, Homer Council on the Arts, Pratt Museum & Park, Sweetgale Meadworks and others. As they do every year, Homer-Kachemak Bay Rotary hosts peony sales, with profits this year used to bring after-school programs to the community. All to celebrate the peony.
Allison Gaylord’s farm is Willow Drive Gardens. Her eleventh year in farming, she farms 2,500 plants and eight varieties on half an acre of her two-acre farm, pulling anywhere from 30,000 to 35,000 stems in a season. She is chairwoman and one of eight founding members of the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op based in Homer, with a dozen farms in the co-op and five local farms that are not a part of the co-op.
“A gardener since I was very young, I thought peony farming would be a fun way to spend my summers and a good way to retire,” she said. “I’m having fun, but not so sure about being able to retire anytime soon.”
Co-op benefits include shared infrastructure resources, labor and active year-round marketing of the flowers and value added products like bath salts, jelly, calendars and greetings cards sold at venues throughout the summer.
Gaylord shared that peony farming is like any other farming, with its joys and challenges.
“There’s the drudgery of crawling around on my knees in sleet, working in mud and dealing with the stress of whether the markets are going to hold,” she said. “And then there’s nothing like standing in the middle of my fields when the flowers are ready to burst, just before we harvest.”
Beth Van Sandt and her husband Kurt started Scenic Place Peonies in 2010, excited to get in on what was at the time the up-and-coming culture of peony farming. They farm two acres of peonies, tending 7,500 flowers and 12 varieties for the commercial cut flower industry.
For the past three years, as part of the peony celebrations the couple has hosted farm tours and flower arranging classes with designers from the Lower 48. For the second year in a row, they are offering “Fleur de Paeonia Botanical Dress Art Show” where international artists create peony-centric couture on life-sized mannequins in the Bear Creek Winery garden as well as Field to Vase dinners catered by local chef Kirstin Dixon and accompanied by live music.
Van Sandt shared that people have a romanticized love of peonies and that Homer has a niche market.
“Peonies are generational, meaning that someone’s mother or grandmother may have planted them or had them in their wedding bouquet,” she said. “No other place in the world grows naturally grown peonies outside and harvests them in July and August and often, September. Alaska has a niche market at this time with these big, beautiful and fragrant flowers.”
Rita Jo and Leroy Shoultz started Alaska Perfect Peony in 2006 with 3,500 peony plants. At the time, their farm was the first commercial peony farm in Alaska and is today the oldest and largest peony farm in the Homer area, encompassing four of the farm’s 25 acres.
Leroy passed away recently and now Rita Jo, her son and daughter-in-law tend their 20 varieties and 12,000 peonies, manage two other local peony farms, continue to plan and plant new gardens along Pioneer Avenue, and host farm tours.
During a full working day, she might work up to 15 hours, cutting two to three times and shipping 100 boxes, tasks she hires high school kids and others to help with.
“Peony farming is a lot of hard work, not a ‘get rich’ gimmick and you definitely need to do your research,” she said. “It’s also a really wonderful community to be a part of. When I started out, there was no one around to offer advice, but now there is a tremendous amount of information and support, nationally and locally.”
Shoultz’s farm blog is read worldwide and she has on several occasions traveled to other countries, including Africa, to educate other communities about peonies.
Gerri and Sean Martin have been farming Diamond Ridge Peonies since 2013 and will be offering farm tours throughout July. Across 1.5 acres, they have 7,200 plants in the ground and 18 varieties, distributing flowers to florists and wholesalers around the U.S. Situated on Diamond Ridge, they are one of the last of the local farms to harvest, filling a late-season niche locally and across the nation.
Their youngest son helps with the farm and Martin shared that despite the challenge of unpredictable weather, she enjoys it.
“Every year, our season is different because of the weather, so some years, we’re done harvesting by the first of August and others, like this year, we won’t begin harvesting until the beginning of August,” she said. “Our biggest task is weeding, but when harvest starts, we get to be surrounded by flowers and I get to have a house full of flowers. What’s better than that?”
The couple got into farming when they were looking to retire their fishing charter business, but not ready to fully retire from work.
“Beth (Van Sandt) told me that she gets up in the morning with a cup of coffee and watches her peonies grow,” Martin said. “That sounded really lovely. Not farmers in any capacity, we jumped in headfirst and found a lot of support.”
A farmer and artist, Martin photographs the flowers in the summer months and paints them in the winter.
Marcia Kuszmaul serves on the Homer Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors and is co-chair of the Peony Task Force as well as president of the Homer Bed and Breakfast Association.
“It’s been amazing and satisfying to see how this celebration has grown, from the number of activities, farm tours and products generated,” she said.
Kuszmaul noted that Homer’s Bed and Breakfast Association members see first-hand how popular the peony-related activities are to guests.
“Visitors are very interested to know the local story of peonies,” she said. “They ask a lot of questions, sign up for the farm tours, purchase peony products and tell us their stories, like the peonies at their child’s wedding or the peony gardens their mothers grew. We see ourselves are ambassadors for the peony farms and the community.”
The Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center markets the Peony Celebration and Jan Knutson, visitor center manager and founding member of the beautification task force, said the celebration is a melding of community members and organizations.
“This is an example of community planning at its best, with a focus on economic development and growth in an industry that is significant in our state and in Homer in particular,” Knutson said. “From the farmers to the organizations and businesses to community members like Karin Marks who works on the walking tour map, among other tasks. The individuals and groups involved and their passion and dedication are valuable beyond measure as we come together to celebrate peonies.”