Bare branches, silvered by snow, then honeyed by warm afternoon light — the Williamsburg-South Ashfield Road in western Massachusetts, with its gabled farmhouses and snow-drifted fields, looked for all the world, on this late January day, like New England’s dream of itself.
I was on my way to Maple Ridge Peony Farm, in Conway, and wondering how the exotic “garden” peony — the herbaceous sort that will die down in winter — came to be part of almost every American farm gardener’s dreams.
From May until July, the peonies require full-time attention from the Viglianis. For the vigor of the root and for perfect, single flowers on individual stems, the family chooses to “disbud” each plant: They remove the side buds from the 4,000 that are in production. This job will take three people three to four days to accomplish. “We do this together,” says Alice, “and talk and visit as we have our hands on every stem. It’s a good check-in. We are basically examining each plant, on the lookout for the fungus botrytis, our enemy.”
The first line of defense against botrytis is planting with air circulation in mind; the second is to keep clean beds — no weeds to hold in moisture, no fallen leaves or stems to rot on the ground.
Another potential troublesome element in the peony garden is a certain species of the “plant” bug, Hemiptera miridae, which appears on the buds in May. The Viglianis pick them off by hand to prevent them from sweeping the fields. Plant bugs look somewhat like fireflies. “We could spray,” says Paul, “but we prefer to pick the bugs off. It’s another chance to check each plant.”
The growers follow a “biodynamic” approach to their peony and other flower beds. Their interpretation of this cultivation method is to develop biologically rich soils, with active and appropriate microorganisms, which in turn contribute to disease-free plants. “We make our own compost and add biodynamic preparations to it — that is, extracts from certain native plants and other organic materials; then we work the aged compost into our production beds and fields, to maintain active microflora in the soil. Then we spray additional biodynamic preparations on the growing plants. Our peonies therefore receive the combined benefit of maximum soil and plant tissue vigor.”
A sustainable system of agriculture, “biodynamic” growing is based on principles set forth by the Austrian social philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. “We’re not experts or fanatics about this philosophy,” says Alice. “We just apply some of its practical suggestions, and our plants are phenomenally healthy and vigorous.”
Maple Ridge peonies, as cut flowers, have, in the last few years, made their way to the Boston Flower Exchange and to other wholesale markets in Hadley, Springfield, and Framingham, Massachusetts. In the last two or three years, the couple note, the balance of the wholesale trade has been swinging from the standard pink and white doubles traditionally desired by florists to greater interest in singles and Japanese peonies.
Among the growers’ favorite cut flowers are ‘Port Royale’ (a deep maroon Japanese); ‘Gay Paree’ (a delicate two-toned white/pink Japanese introduced in 1938); ‘James Pillow’ (a huge, tall, deep, full pink double introduced in 1936); and ‘Top Brass’ (an unusual tufted and fragrant off-white Japanese).
“I feel so excited when I see the peony plants coming up in the spring,” says Alice. “It’s like anticipating a visit with a good friend.” Her husband adds: “They’re a presence. I like them before they flower. You can see the vitality and energy in them.”
— Paula Panich
To get on the mailing list of Maple Ridge Peony Farm in Conway, Massachusetts, send your name and address to Alice and Paul Vigliani, 1784 Main Poland Road, Conway, MA 01341.
The text of The Book of the Peony was reprinted in 1993 by The Timber Press (800.327.5680 or www.timberpress.com ), with an introduction by the well-known commercial peony grower Roy Klehm.
Mrs. Edward Harding — Alice, whose legacy includes an eponymous tree-peony hybrid — sets us straight in The Book of the Peony (Lippincott, 1917): “The fact that the peony does not appear in horticultural literature in this country before 1800 may be accounted for more by the absence of the literature than the absence of the peony. Not till the beginning of the Nineteenth Century did horticulture as distinct from agriculture attain some individuality. The literature arose with the art.”
When Mrs. Harding refers to “this country” she means, of course, New England, and no wonder. The herbaceous peony had a recorded place in English gardens in the 12th century and most likely was present long before; and as Alice Harding describes the “splendour and majesty of presence” of the peony, along with its “grace and comeliness,” she assures her readers that “all, however, have an air of sturdy character and self-reliance.”
At Maple Ridge, a 15-acre farm on a hill just on the Williamsburg-Conway line, another Alice, Alice Vigliani, along with her husband, Paul, presides over 3 acres of herbaceous peonies planted in raised beds and rows — about 5,000 plants representing 35 varieties.
Alice and Paul moved to this pretty acreage (I saw it first during bloom time last June) in 1984, when Alice accepted a job in Conway. They had been vegetable and flower gardeners in rural Wisconsin, but had never grown a peony.
A chance remark by a friend soon after they built their two-story farmhouse — “I know someone in New York who bought an old peony farm” — set their minds toward peonies as a potential economic venture on their land.
The Viglianis had bought a long-abandoned, burned-out dairy farm. They found the remains of a barn and bits of a foundation, but otherwise, 40 years of trees, shrubs, and weeds choked the land that had once been home to pastures, house, and barn. They cleared the land, leaving the forested section intact, and tried to reclaim a neglected apple orchard. Deer and porcupine were more than grateful for the couple’s efforts.
The intrepid growers started with perhaps 25 peony plants in 1988. “The old barnyard soil is quite rich,” says Alice, “and deer won’t eat peonies. In fact, they don’t even damage the plants when they step among them.” The “Queen of Flowers,” as Mrs. Harding refers to peonies, doesn’t seem to be on the porcupine’s menu either.
The Viglianis knew their peony-growing experiment would be a long-term investment. How would the plants behave in the microclimate on their hill? They decided to concentrate on cut-flower varieties. “It took years for things to get going,” says Paul. “But we could tell after two or three years which plants would behave well.”
Their peony-growing ridge is cooler and windier than many home gardens in western Massachusetts, so the peonies bloom a bit later. The raised beds receive full sun all day. “Peonies don’t like to be sitting in wet soil,” Paul says. “And the air currents are good for them. There’s a general operating theory with peonies that air circulation helps prevent fungus problems. We plant the peonies very close together, 18 inches to 2 feet, depending on the variety, for production efficiency, so the moving air is important.”
Maple Ridge Peony Farm sells cut flowers to wholesale flower markets around New England and the New York City suburbs. The Viglianis prefer Japanese varieties and “singles” (although they do grow other forms) — that is, peonies with one row of petals instead of a whole head. A Japanese peony is typically defined as a flower with five or more outer petals and a center of staminodes (stamens without pollen). A “single” peony has one or more rows of outer petals with a center of pollen-bearing stamens. “We like the looks of Japanese and ‘single’ peonies,” says Alice, “and we chose the cut-flower varieties that have performed well here. Many floral designers prefer these flowers too.”
To pass the cut-flower test, the variety or hybrid must have sturdy, tall stems and a long vase life (that means they will hold petals for at least six days). Most of the flowers grown at Maple Ridge will hold on for 10 to 12 days. “A garden variety can easily drop its petals two days after it is picked,” says Paul.