Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a peony workshop at Bear Creek Farm in Upstate New York. As many of my readers know, I am an avid peony fan. I have written about my peony obsession on several occasions, such as in my posts Confessions of a Hoarderculturist, A Peony for Your Thoughts, and Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe. And so, I’m sure it is no surprise that when I spotted an opportunity to attend a workshop devoted entirely to my favorite bloom, I couldn’t pass it up.
Bear Creek Farm is a cut flower farm in Stanfordville, NY, that cultivates over 100 varieties of flowers, focusing on peonies and dahlias. They utilize sustainable farming practices, and supply cut stems to wholesale markets throughout the tri-state region. They also offer their award-winning dahlia tubers for sale online to home gardeners. This year marks Bear Creek Farm’s sixth season in the cut flower business. Despite living relatively close by, I had never been to the farm, and I was excited to have the opportunity.
Upon arrival, our gracious host Debra Kaye took us out to the peony field. Debra had told us before our visit that unpredictable weather this year had disrupted the usual bloom time of the peonies. Typically, the eight peony cultivars that grow on the farm bloom in the early, mid, and late seasons, spreading the flowering and thus harvesting out over a 3-4 week period starting in early June. This year, with a week of soaring daytime temperatures and frigid nights, the entire crop of peonies opened within a nine-day window in late May, leaving the workers scrambling to harvest the cut stems in time. The temperature fluctuations also caused concern over buds being burned or frozen, both of which would lead to the flower failing to open.
Of the 38 acres on the property, a quarter of an acre is devoted to peonies. There are 1500 peony plants, all in shades of white and blush, that produce 15,000 to 20,000 cut stems a season. The picturesque landscape was drool-worthy and could have graced any garden magazine cover. I imagine my jaw was hanging open as my eyes scanned the field of peonies. I hope no one noticed, although I’m pretty sure we were all in awe, even with most of the plants finished with their blooming.
While in the field among the blooms, Debra shared her vast knowledge of growing peonies. We learned about planting, harvesting, conditioning, and general care of the plants. Some of the invaluable tips I came away with include:
- Never plant peonies too deeply (bare-roots should be buried no more than 2 inches underground).
- Plant peonies in full sun (at least 6 hours) and don’t plant too closely to improve air circulation.
- Trim off side buds to get more prominent flowers.
- Harvest stems before the flower blooms to get a longer vase life (at the soft bud or marshmallow stage).
- When cutting stems or deadheading, cut just above a leaf joint.
- When harvesting, only remove 1/3 of the stems to ensure the plant will come back next year. They use tickets attached to the plants at the farm to signal how many stems to harvest. As they cut a stem, a ticket is torn off, and when the tickets are gone, no more stems can be taken from that plant.
After lunch, we met with floral designer Taylor Patterson of Fox Fodder Farm. Taylor led us in a floral arranging workshop specifically created with peonies in mind. She shared tips for conditioning cut flowers, composition techniques, and color palette choice. After her demonstration, we started to create an arrangement of our own.
At first, I was unsure of where to begin, having never created a formal arrangement before. I stood daunted by the many flower varieties and foliage options at our disposal. I was like a kid in a candy store, wanting a little bit of everything! Somehow, I managed to limit myself to the suggested four elements when I chose dappled willow branches, peonies, foxglove, and campanula.
As I got further into arranging, I started to relax and enjoy the experience. I realized that there wasn’t one “right way” to make the arrangement and that flower arranging can be deeply personal, reflecting the personality of the one arranging. As I looked around at the other displays, I realized that even though we were all given the same materials to work with, the arrangements were vastly different. They were all stunningly beautiful and unique and reflected the people that created them. While we had all started as strangers that morning, we gained insight into who everyone was as a person by looking at each other’s arrangements. Seeing how flowers could reflect and represent one’s personality was perhaps the most fantastic part of the workshop.
I sadly had to bid farewell to Bear Creek Farm and the terrific people I had met through the peony workshop. As I drove home, I thought about what a wonderful day I’d had, filled with learning and a shared love for one of my favorite flowers. I proudly brought my arrangement home for display, and as I pass by and look at what I created, I secretly wonder what the choices I made say about me.