Herald Journal - Enterprise Dispatch - Delano Herald Journal
A passion for peonies: HL farm to host tours
May 24, 2010

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

HOWARD LAKE, DELANO, MN – Want to see 6,000 peony plants in full bloom?

Keith and Becky Swenson, owners of Swenson Gardens in Howard Lake, will be hosting free tours of their fields Friday May 28; Saturday, May 29; Monday, May 31; and Saturday, June 5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Tours are really great for people who are just curious about peonies,” Becky said.

“We don’t care if people buy peonies or not,” Keith said. “We just want them to enjoy the field.”

The Swensons, who are the largest organic peony growers in the US, first discovered their passion for peonies when they lived in Delano for about 10 years, starting in 1998.

“We wanted to landscape with peonies, but we didn’t want the traditional red, white, and pink,” Becky said.

Keith, whose grandmother had taught him to garden, began to research other varieties. Color was important, but the Swensons also looked for plants with extended bloom times, stout stems, and crisp, clean foliage for landscaping appeal.

Then, they met Roger Anderson, a well-known peony breeder in Wisconsin, who gave them tips and helpful advice.

“We learned a lot about how to grow peonies from him,” Becky said.

Soon, the Swensons took their landscaping to a whole new level, and decided to make it into a business.

With Keith’s farming and sales experience, and Becky’s marketing background, having an organic peony farm was a natural fit.

It also gives the Swenson children, Britta, 14, and Luke, 12, an opportunity to learn how a business operates.

“It really dovetails well into home schooling,” Becky said. Because they are home schooled, Britta and Luke have flexible schedules that allow them to participate in planting, weeding, field management, website maintenance, selling, and billing.

“It’s a very good hands-on education,” Becky said. “They really enjoy selling the cut flowers.”

Having a crop of peonies requires a great deal of time and effort, Becky said.

“Any type of farming is labor-intensive,” she said. “It’s teaching all of us to be good workers.”

In 2007, the family moved to Howard Lake and started another large field. The field in Delano is mainly used for production, whereas the Howard Lake field was designed with tours in mind.

“This is where we really want to expand our tours,” Becky said.

Between the two fields, Swenson Gardens has about 13,000 peony plants.

In Delano, Becky said she would often see hang gliders circling their fields, admiring the aerial view of peonies in bloom.

People from all over the US order from Swenson Gardens, which offers certified disease- and pest-free bare root peonies.

For Becky, one of the most rewarding aspects is getting calls from people across the country who are excited about their purchase.

“It’s an emotional purchase for some people,” she said. Many people like to buy varieties that their mothers or grandmothers used to grow, while others enjoy trying out the newest hybrids.

In addition to the traditional reds, whites, and pinks, Swenson Gardens also offers yellows, corals, red-and-white candy stripe, and tri-color peonies.

An example of the tri-color variety is the “Hillary” peony, which is a deep watermelon color when it is closed. As it opens, it turns to pale rose, and when it’s wide open, it becomes a creamy yellow.

“Our goal is to find varieties you can’t buy in nurseries,” Becky said. “We’re constantly adding to our stock.”

In addition to interesting color choices, the Swensons also are one of the few peony farms to be completely chemical-free.

“We are thankful for the property that God has given us, and we want to take good care of it,” Becky said. “We think it makes for a healthier plant, too.”

Because they handle the soil directly, Becky said she also wanted to make sure that it was safe for her family.

They use special equipment for planting and harvesting, but all the weeding is done by hand.

“We crawl through the field on our hands and knees,” Becky laughed. “I think the farmers around us are intrigued. It’s a very different type of crop.”

During the peony tours, Becky and Keith will be available to answer any questions people might have about growing peonies.

“It’s a good time to take a look at the plant habitat, too,” Becky said.

Peonies are a hardy flower that is very easy to maintain, she said. Swenson Gardens grows peonies that are disease-and wind-resistant, with a strong stem and root structure.

Directions and info
The Swenson Garden tours will take place at 10958 70th Street SW in Howard Lake.

If people are searching for directions online, Keith advises using MapQuest, because Google’s directions are incorrect. The farm is 1.5 miles SW of Howard Lake between Wright County Road 6 and Wright County Road 5 on the north side of 70th Street SW.

To learn more about Swenson Gardens, call (763) 350-2051, e-mail info@swensongardens.com, or go to www.swensongardens.com.

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