May/June 2010 A Visit With

Growing peonies to envy
Thirty thousand tiny shoots all egging each other on to hurry up and bloom. That’s the early April scene at Peony’s Envy, Kathy Gagan’s organic peony farm in Bernardsville. Soon the whole hillside surrounding her house will be a mass of gorgeous peony blossoms in all varieties and colors, open to the public May 1 through June 15. Gagan, a high-energy, classy lady with a wealth of floral knowledge, shares the secrets of her successful peony business.

What do you do when you’re not digging in the dirt?
Better to ask what I don’t do. I’m not a flower business in the usual sense. I don’t sell cut flowers. We’re a flower farm, a nursery. In addition to the display garden, we supply live plants by mail year-round. The rest of the time my staff and I travel nationwide giving lectures and programs on peony culture and managing our booth at flower shows. We won a prize at the Philadelphia show this year. Check my Web site, www.peonysenvy.com.

There seems to be a peony renaissance right now. Why do you think old-fashioned peonies are becoming newly popular?
They’re so beautiful. They’re easy to grow and hard to kill. They make gorgeous arrangements, they come in so many varieties, they’re reliable and don’t need much watering. They have pretty, dark green foliage, the plants last forever, and best of all, deer don’t like them. Voila, the perfect plant!

Do you have any favorite tips for would-be peony growers?
One thing you absolutely must have is patience. You’re planting peonies for your grandchildren. It takes a good three years for a herbaceous peony to bloom properly, two years for tree peonies. But it pays off big time. There are 800-year-old peonies in China.
Peonies grow beautifully once they’re established, but it’s important to give them the right start. You wouldn’t put your baby in any old crib. Condition your soil, add lots of organic matter, make sure you dig the hole deep enough, but place the roots fairly shallow or the plant won’t bloom.

Read more of this interview in the current issue of New Jersey Countryside Magazine, available now at bookstores, on newsstands and by subscription. Click here to get one free bonus issue and save more than 80% on a subscription.