It felt like forever, but in reality, I was waiting less than a year to plant the first peony in our fields. The dream fresh, my knowledge minimal, and the incredible joy of handling the root crowns everything I hoped for. This was one of those days where I am completely immersed in the "I love my job" wellspring.
I have never had the opportunity to investigate so many peony crowns before. I didn't intern at an established farm or do a round of visits with the experts during our prep years which overlapped with Covid. So even though the test field is a fraction of what our full production will be, the 500+ peonies across 22 varieties contained a wealth of information and my eyes and hands greedily consumed it. They are amazing.
Mini-hands did not make for light work the first planting day, but the ceremony of each of us putting a peony in the ground made up for it. I wanted the memory more than the productivity. I'll have to hustle through the rest of December, but that's ok too.
My main concern was planting too deep or too shallow. Mostly too deep. I'd rather have eyes poking out the top of the soil where I know some will be shallow enough to provide blooms, than risk it settling in after planting and being too deep in spring time.
If there is one drama that peonies excel at, it is their sheer abhorrence over being planted half an inch too deep. It's hard to add that 2" and not worry. For images and details on how to best plant them visit this link, but remember if the dirt settles, you may need to adjust that peony later.
Another concern was the dreaded Root-Knot Nematode (Meloidogyne Hapla), AKA Lemoine's Disease. The problem with this concern, however, was that all the reading and googling in the world couldn't give me the expertise to be confident of what I was looking for or at. The things I needed to know: when is a knot not RKN and how frequently will one find RKN; just weren't readily available. As with anything when you're looking hard enough, I convinced myself I'd found it. Thankfully, my lack of expertise is buffered by an expert (perhaps the expert who knows all the experts) and with one phone call, I had expert eyes assuring me that these were not the nematodes I was looking for. Here are knots that are not RKN for you.
See the difference? Neither can I. That's where sourcing comes in as a critical step in developing our fields.
The majority of our bulbs are sourced through Alaska Perfect Peony from De Vroomen in Illinois. I chose to go this route for a few reasons: great direct assistance and mentorship from APP, the ability to collaborate on orders with other growers to get the varieties we needed without filling box minimums, the reported quality of the roots, and the guarantee on the health of the roots (in particular that they are put through a heat bath to eliminate RKN concerns).
Here is a comparison of roots I purchased--6 varieties, 2 each from 3 of the vendors we ordered from. (2 vendors aren't shown because their roots were significantly undersized/we were unable to get contact with one vendor to place/confirm our order). I'm citing De Vroomen by name because their roots were consistently larger, more uniform, had significantly more eyes, and in general seemed to be of excellent quality in comparison with our other roots regardless of variety. I know for their roots my holes have to be twice as deep or wide as the others. (Note: this is not an ad, I've received no comp or benefits for naming names, just the joy of acknowledging when people do great work.)
I will post an update once these bad boys have started to grow in Spring of 2022 and we see which ones are the most vigorous and if it fluctuates more by variety or vendor. Then I will add another follow up once the test field is mature to see if the playing field leveled or changed across them. Peonies are an expensive crop, even wholesale, roots can range from $3-$40 and more each, so seeing a wide variety of roots for our test field, not just the quality, but also which vendor had damp mediums or empty bags, which vendors were responsive, how shipping delays were handled and communicated, etc was very informative. With that, I'll leave you with this beautiful Sarah Bernhardt in repose that caught my eye. More on her next time.