A recent field to vase dinner and tour at Scenic Place Peonies in Homer helped to highlight the state of the area’s peony industry today.
The dinner tour was one of several events presented by Certified American Grown Flowers around the country this year. The pop up gatherings are meant to highlight the connection between flowers and agriculture “as part of America’s floral landscape,” according to a release about the event.
Peonies have had a short and relatively variable history in Alaska. Another Homer resident, Rita Jo Shoultz, opened the state’s very first peony farm, Alaska Perfect Peony, in 2006 after being approached by a professor from Fairbanks, who had been studying the potential growing season for peonies in Alaska.
“She told me that they had discovered … peonies in bloom in Alaska when they aren’t available anywhere else in the world,” Shoultz said.
Shoultz started with 3,500 peonies, and has since grown to about 15,000 tubers. She said those early days of pioneering the industry on the Kenai Peninsula were challenging, as there weren’t many models to look to. Peonies had been studied in Fairbanks, but the climate there is so different that it didn’t always apply to growing them in Homer, she said.
Over the years, Shoultz has gone over to New Zealand to learn more about raising peonies. Many more farms have sprung up in Alaska since then as well, including Scenic Place Peonies, owned by Beth Van Sandt.
Some farms are small, with only a few hundred peony plants. Shoultz estimated that there are about 35 peony farms from Ninilchik down to Homer. Some fall into the 250-350 range, while others have 5,000-6,000 plants, she said.
Alaska peony farmers capitalized on the season that runs from about July-August, which is later than peonies bloom in other parts of the country and world, giving the growers their own corner of the market. Getting the industry started in Alaska wasn’t easy, though.
“It is very risky,” Shoultz said of peony farming in Alaska. “You know, you’re totally dependent upon the weather.”
While Shoultz said her farm in Homer hasn’t seen too many peony losses due strictly to weather, she noted that other farms on the peninsula saw some losses over the last few seasons when the winters didn’t get as much snowfall.
Peonies are also very sensitive to water.
“The biggest problem with growing peonies is drainage because, you know, Alaska is wet,” Shoultz said.
Drainage can be a big problem for new growers, she said. Alaska Perfect Peony once lost a few thousand plants itself after the farm enlarged its lake, which created a drainage issue by changing the water flow.
Farmers at Alaska Perfect Peony recently worked for three years on a field to make sure it had proper drainage and was ready for the plants, Shoultz said.
She predicts, now that the novelty of taking advantage of the Alaska peony season has worn off slightly, that the industry in the state will slow down a bit.
“Now there’s enough (farms) out there having enough problems, now they’re starting to see it’s a challenge,” she said.
Still, most established peony farms should continue to do fine even if the seasons overlap with those in the Lower 48 sometimes, Shoultz said. Once a solid customer base is established, overlapping seasons isn’t as much of a problem, she said.
Homer was officially declared City of Peonies at the last Homer City Council meeting.