Like little kids, the flowers at Funny River Peonies are tucked under blankets while they sleep. Springtime means it’s time to wake up.
“Once we get these off, these blankets off, then I’ll be going around and putting fertilizer and lime in every hole, ’cause we do that in the spring," said Denise Carey. "We also put a pre-emergent weed spray down so the seeds don’t germinate.”
Denise and her husband, Dan, are prepping for their first big commercial peony season. Last year was a test run, to get used to the fast-paced timing of peony farming.
“We have to pick the bud in the exact right time or it won’t open," Denise said. "If we pick it too soon, it won’t open. And if we wait too late and it opens, then we can’t send it out. So we needed to practice to make sure we knew the exact right stage to pick them.”
The Careys are retired school teachers from Anchorage. They were looking for a project to take into retirement when Denise saw a magazine article about peony farming.
“And I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh. I love growing flowers,'" she said. "'Dan’s always wanted a farm. This is perfect!’ And Dan wasn’t home, and I called him up and said, ‘I know what we’re doing in retirement.’ And he was on board.”
That was in 2017. They now have rows and rows of 3,000 peony plants behind their cabin off Funny River Road, lying partially beneath homemade blankets of foam and tarp.
It’s a method the Careys came up with to protect their plants against winter’s harsh cycles of thaws and freezes. But it protects the plants against too-warm weather, too.
Peonies like cold. It’s partially why they do so well in Alaska, where there’s a long, cool growing season that’s set back from seasons elsewhere.
In the Lower 48, peonies tend to bloom in May and June. But July and August, when Alaska’s peonies thrive, falls within the summer wedding season, giving growers a reliable market for their perennials.
There were fewer weddings last year, amid COVID-19. But Patti and Wayne Floyd, of Cool Cache Farms in Nikiski, found business elsewhere.
“Actually, the peonies for us last summer were fantastic because a lot of the flower growers in the Lower 48 just plowed their fields under because they didn’t see weddings continuing with COVID," Patti said. "And so we were able to fill that void, that there weren’t other flowers. And we sold out last summer.”
The Floyds have been farming peonies for years. This April, their peony field is still looking quite wintery.
“So up north here, as you can see, we have a lot of snow still," Wayne said. "And that’s to our benefit, ’cause the longer we have snow, the later we enter the market and the less we have to compete with the Dutch.”
Holland is also known for its peonies. Its blooming season is earlier than Alaska's.
The Floyds have 13 varieties of peonies. The blush and white flowers are among the most popular.
They had some issues with bud blast last year — a phenomenon that turns buds black or brown. But overall, it was a good season. With help from a team of workers, they cut 18,000 stems.
The Floyds also grow and sell vegetables, jams and petunias. Their start in peonies was not unlike the Careys’.
“My wife came home from a peony conference and she said, ‘We’re going to take the trees down and start a peony farm,'" Wayne said. "And I went, ‘Uh, OK.’”
Alaska peonies have roots on the Kenai Peninsula. Rita Jo Shoultz of Homer’s Alaska Perfect Peony started the first commercial peony farm in the state in 2006.
Wayne is on the board of directors of the Alaska Peony Grower’s Association.
“I think there was a gold rush period, where they were saying you could put a stick in the ground and it would grow peonies," he said.
It’s taken time but Wayne said more people in the Lower 48 now think about Alaska when they think peonies.
"I went Outside probably seven years ago now and I drove the I-5 corridor from Canada all the way down to Eugene, Ore. Talked to 99 florists," he said. "And only four of them knew that there were peonies in Alaska. And so it was an educational thing for them and me to see what kind of inertia we had to overcome to get people to know we have them. Now, it’s becoming known.”
Once their flower beds shed their most persistent layers of snow, the Floyds will have about three weeks before their first buds come up. About 10 weeks after that, they’ll start to harvest the buds and will stick them in coolers to delay them from opening into flowers.
Back in Funny River, Dan Carey’s going through each row of peonies, untucking the peonies from their blankets and removing the hundreds of bags of rocks holding them down.
The Careys have had to make adjustments to their year due to COVID. They were planning to drive around the Southwest this year to market their flowers to florists there.
“But, we couldn’t do that," Dan said. "So that kind of put us a year behind.”
“And I ended up sending out the brochures but we didn’t have too much action on our website from the brochures, I don’t think," Denise said.
Denise said they’re tracking their website analytics to see where their traffic’s from and they’re starting to think about wedding inquiries.
She said they’re not trying to get rich off their farm. But it’s brought them a lot of joy since retiring.
“I cried my eyes out the day that was my last day of teaching," she said. "And I thought I was going to be back there every single day, subbing. But when we started this, it’s just like that chapter of my life closed and now we’re farmers.”