April 2, 2007

Swenson Gardens is planting roots in HL

Not only is the Swenson family moving to Howard Lake, so is the garden and business

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

The Swenson family handpicked Howard Lake as its new home to live as well as to expand its peony acres for its business, Swenson Gardens.

More than 7,000 individual peony plants will need to be moved from their current field in Delano to their new and permanent 40-acre home located 1.5 miles southwest of Howard Lake.

“We’ve been looking for a place to move for a couple years. One reason we decided on Howard Lake is because the soil is unbelievable there,” said Keith Swenson, owner of Swenson Gardens.

“We found a home that has an original granary from 1901 that still has original peonies growing around it. We said, ‘OK, Lord, we get the sign,’ ” Swenson laughed.

“This fall, we’ll start planting in Howard Lake; it’ll take two to three years to see color in our fields. We want people in Howard Lake and its surrounding communities to enjoy our gardens. There will be more information in the future as to when the gardens will be open to the public,” Swenson said.

“People travel a long ways, from many states away, to buy our plants. So when our gardens are open, we’re hoping the Howard Lake community will also benefit,” Swenson said.

“Peonies are a generational flower, and they can grow for 100 years. People often say they remember grandma had a big hedge of peonies – it touches your senses,” he said.

However, these aren’t your grandma’s peonies, Swenson is quick to point that out. The majority of Swenson Garden’s peonies do not need staking because they have very stiff stems, they offer extended bloom times, and they have dozens of blooms.

Swenson’s Gardens specialize in intersectional hybrid peonies that are grown organically. “They are a cross between a tree peony and garden peony,” Swenson explained.

“There’s a resurgence in the marketplace for peonies. They have really come back into the landscape because of the new colors as well as attributes such as stiff stems – so they don’t flop over – and foliage that looks like shrubs,” he said.

“Peonies are doing things within landscapes that they couldn’t do before. They’re really coming into their own as not only accents in clump gardening, but also in hedge applications,” Swenson explained.

A growing business

Although the business officially began in 2002, Keith has been growing peonies as a hobby for more than 30 years. His wife, Becky, also has a love for the plants, and her grandmother was the first president of the gardening club in Ely.

“Both of Becky’s grandmothers were huge gardeners and so was my grandmother and my dad. I guess gardening is in our genes,” Swenson laughed.

“My grandmother got me into gardening when I was very young. Growing up on a farm, I kind of have dirt in my blood,” he laughed.

Swenson had heard rumor of a yellow peony in the mid-to-late 1990s. Garden centers did not carry yellow varieties and actually carried very few varieties, in general. He spent years researching peony varieties, searching for those offering superior attributes.

The research paid off.

“We found wondrous peonies that you’ll never find in a garden store. Peonies with stems strong enough to hold up their own heavy heads. Peonies in colors and shades you might expect of roses: corals, lavenders, marbles, russets, and even yellow,” Swenson said.

The Swensons moved to Delano in 1998, and in 1999, started landscaping their new home. They purchased a couple Bartzellas (a rare yellow peony) from a mail-order company, and the first time they witnessed them bloom was 2002. The Swensons fell in love with this variety.

The family had been considering starting a family business. They home-educate their two children, Britta, 11, and Luke, 9, and wanted them to be involved.

“We call it ‘dirt to screen.’ They plant something in the dirt and they are seeing the end product on the Internet,” Swenson said.

“The kids get involved with the ‘weed crew,’ they help wash and pack roots in the fall to fill orders, and they are involved in selling cut flowers at the Delano and Excelsior farmers’ markets. They’re getting their taste in business and doing a wonderful job,” Swenson said.

“It excites me to be able to share the joy of gardening with my kids. Gardening is a life skill that they can use as they get older and pass on to the next generation,” he said.

When it’s time to harvest peony roots in the fall for the business to sell, it is necessary to use a tree spade. This is because some roots may be up to three feet in diameter and three feet deep.

After the roots are washed and soaked, “they go into surgery,” Swenson said.

Swenson will divide the roots by hand and the end result will be a three- to five-eye bare root division.

“We committed ourselves to the old-fashioned, slower way of growing peonies because it gives you the highest quality roots. Each of our plants is a division of original, 3-year-old field-grown stock. This means you get a more developed plant and impressive results in your garden faster,” Swenson said.

In 2003, the Swensons started marketing their peonies. The business has already been featured in national and local newspapers and magazines.

Swenson Gardens sells its peonies both in the US and internationally, by mail order or Internet.

Organically grown peonies

“We grow peonies the old-fashioned way, which is very labor-intensive. We are organic growers, we don’t use herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or fungicides,” Swenson said.

“We wanted to be chemical-free because we want the peonies to grow the way God intended. We don’t want to stimulate them to grow to achieve an increased profit. We want them to arrive at our customer’s door with no added stimulants or fertilizers versus coming pumped full of chemicals,” Swenson explained.

The fields of Swenson Gardens are inspected annually by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Because they ship peonies internationally, added testing is done on the soil and plants of which Swenson reports they receive “glowing reviews.”

The Swensons acquire peony roots from all over the world, which are then acclimated to Minnesota weather for three years in their fields.

“That way, when the plants are acclimated to our growing zone, they do significantly better around here versus buying a potted peony, pumped full of chemicals, that may have been grown in a greenhouse in California, Tennessee, or Missouri, which are the three largest peony grower states,” Swenson said.

“It takes two to four years for peonies to establish themselves. Patience is a virtue. If you want quick color, buy annuals. If you want generational color, buy peonies,” he said.

For more information

If you would like tips about growing peonies or have questions, contact Swenson Gardens at www.swensongardens.com or call (763) 350-2051.

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