Alaska’s cool temperatures and nutrient-rich soil make it the only place in the world buyers can find the most popular wedding flower -peonies- in the late summer months of July and August. However, because of cooler-than-average weather this summer, lower Kenai Peninsula peony farmers are going to have blooms later than expected.
The second annual Homer Peony Celebration began Friday, July 9, but a majority of the local peony farms in Homer haven’t seen a bloom yet this season because of the cool weather and cloud coverage, according to the Alaska Beauty Peony Cooperative. With expected warmer weather and sunshine predicted for the next week or two, farmers are hopeful they will have peonies ready for the festival and their markets.
While Alaska only got into the peony industry 15 years ago, there are now more than 200 peony farms in the state. Homer is home to more than 25 of these farms, including the 11 farms that make up the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op.
Alaska Perfect Peony Farm, the oldest peony farm in Alaska located on East End Road, held its first farm tour of the celebration last week, and while participants didn’t see the bloomed flowers in the field, they were still able to learn about the growing process and make bouquets with flowers from the Interior.
“Just look at them; there is nothing more beautiful than peonies,” Rita Jo Schultz, owner of Alaska Perfect Peony Farm said, as the group assembled their bouquets.
Schultz opened Alaska Perfect Peony Farm, the first peony farm in Alaska, in 2006 with the help of University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulturist Dr. Pat Holloway, who realized Alaska’s late blooming season could fill a hole in the peony industry and provide peonies later in the year, considering the flowers are normally harvested in May and June in the Lower 48.
“The university discovered that Alaska peonies were available when they weren’t anywhere else in the world, so we had the niche,” Schultz said. “…Dr. Pat Holloway with the University of Alaska was the one who actually started it. She had botanical gardens and discovered that the timing was right, so she’s been extremely helpful to me.”
While it started as a retirement project for the Schultzes, who have learned many lessons in growing through trial and error, Alaska Perfect Peony Farm is now a six-farm operation in Homer that proudly provides only the best peonies for buyers across the world.
According to Schultz, peonies are a high value crop that can be temperamental to grow because of unpredictable weather. Peonies need 11-14 weeks of below 40-degree temperatures and six to eight hours of sunshine a day and warm weather in the summer to grow to their full potential. While the farms usually produce more than 60,000 flowers each year, Schultz said the prolonged ice this winter and cool temperature this summer caused damage to a large percentage of their crop and stymied their production rates. At best, the peony farm will sell 35,000 peonies this summer, but Schultz is confident they will meet the needs of all of their customers.
“(Growing peonies) is a challenge, but it can be done,” Schultz said. “… By March of this year and April, we knew we were going to be two to three weeks late. We’re three weeks late now, and we’re still not there. That’s a huge challenge that we’re facing. … We’ve been really cool this summer, so you take the late spring and you take the cool summer and add them all together and try to figure it out.”
Gerri and Sean Martin, of Diamond Ridge Peonies on Diamond Ridge Road, said just like the Schultzes and many other Homer farmers, their blooms are behind this year as well. The Martin’s began their peony farm in 2013 as a hopeful retirement plan from their halibut charter service, but now they’re operating both businesses full time.
“Peonies were the new up and coming thing,” Gerri Martin said. “I remember chatting with my friend in the post office, and I was kind of grousing about being tired of my fishing business. She said ‘You need to start growing some peonies because when you wake up in the morning, you can get your coffee, walk down and watch your plants grow.’ I said, well that sounds like fun! … It was the new thing that was working around here if you weren’t afraid to work, and we weren’t.”
Because of the farm’s location, the Martin’s didn’t suffer as high of a loss as many of the lower elevation farms did this winter. With 7,200 plants of 21 varieties, the Martins are hopeful they will sell around 60,000 peonies this summer. However, their harvest is still delayed because of the weather.
“They like to be cold in the winter, they like to be covered in snow in the winter. Up on Diamond Ridge, we really feel lucky that we don’t have the freeze-thaw scenario that the lower elevation (farms) do,” Gerri Martin said. “But on the flip side of a summer like this, our field is very late. We are nowhere near harvest yet, but we’re hoping that if we get this nice week of weather coming up, things will start to move. Everybody is budded, but they’re just small. … It’s going to be late for everybody on the hillside. You just can’t put a start and stop time on these peonies.”
Gerri said that even though they are later than usual, they are still able to reach a market that otherwise wouldn’t have peonies this time of the year.
The Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op said they are struggling to fulfill the orders they have, but the farms are preparing for the upcoming harvest the best they can. Brad Llewellyn, co-op pack house manager, said “it’s just how farming goes” and there are many variables they have to take into consideration.
“Alaskan peonies are actually some of the best. They’re the bigger ones, and sometimes we just get premium choice flowers that are beyond what they can produce on the East coast or otherwise,” Llewellyn said. “As far as the Co-op goes, they’re trying to increase production and fulfill orders, but there are so many variables.”
“It’s really rough without there being flowers,” Llewellyn continued. “It’s just waiting for the sun, but this week, we should have some sun coming out, so we’re estimating by next week we’ll be able to do a real harvest.”
The Co-op was formed in 2013 and is made up of 11 local farms that aggregate their resources to sell to wholesale markets. As it continues to grow, the co-op moved the operation to Lakeshore Drive next to Homer Brewery to be in a more centralized location.
Even though the blooms aren’t quite ready, the second annual Homer Peony Celebration is continuing as scheduled with peony farm tours by Alaska Perfect Peony Farm, Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op, Scenic Place Peonies Farm, Anchor Point Greenhouse Farm and Joslyn Peony Farm; Blooms and Brew Tours with the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op and Homer Brewing; wine tasting and self-guided farm tours with Bear Creek Winery for parties of 10 or more; bouquet design classes; peony art workshops; art galleries; and the Pratt Museum & Park Ritz Garden Party themed “Peonies & Patsy Cline.” Self-guided peony tours are also available in downtown Homer along Pioneer Avenue, with peony gardens marked with the official “Homer City of Peonies” signs.
Registration is available through participating Homer peony farms, nonprofits and businesses sponsoring the events or at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Peony bouquets will also be for sale to “Spread Joy, Say Thanks” for $20 beginning 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, July 15-17, 22-24 and 29-31 at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. The Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemak Bay is partnering with the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op to sell the bouquets in support of the rotary and the local growers.
The official peony celebration bags by NOMAR are sold at the Homer Chamber of Commerce, Art Shop Gallery, Bunnell Arts, Diamond Ridge Art Gallery, as well as the Alaska Beauty Peony Co-op.
For more information or to view the full schedule events, visit www.homeralaska.org/homer-peony-celebration/ or call the chamber of commerce at 907-235-7740.