In early summer, Silo Ridge Peony Farm west of Milford will welcome guests for the first time to experience a field of blooms. During peak bloom, 7,000 peony plants will display their immense beauty that will be awe-dropping for visitors and is inspiring to the owner.
For Shelly Derner and her family, the timeless flower represents a multitude of emotions.
“The peony means a lot of different things to me, but as a child, I remember the feeling my mother had when I brought her a bouquet of peonies from our yard – it made her so happy,” Shelly remembered. “Now, I get to live my dream out with my four daughters and create beautiful memories with them.”
Many people have a peony story or memory. It is a generational flower that can live a long time. Often a peony is treated as an heirloom and is shared within the family and is taken with them when they move. When the peony plant is divided, it starts its life cycle over again and often lives well over 50 years.
“Some older farm sites, the house is gone but the peony still comes up out of the ground every spring,” Shelly marvels.
It is considered a timeless resilient flower that begins blooming in late spring, and depending on the color and variety, it can produce vibrant colors through mid-June. The short season may seem fleeting, but while in bloom, the peony’s design demands attention.
“Peonies makes sure you notice them when they are blooming,” Shelly said. “They are gorgeous. I am excited for the blooms to welcome summer in Okoboji to visitors. Peak bloom will likely be June 10th so pencil that in on your calendar and keep in mind it may vary depending on the type of spring our region has.”
Transforming a Farm
In April 2020, the peony farm dream was formed after seeing the peony buds sprouting at Shelly’s home garden. It took a great deal of research, hard work and time to transform the land from a typical crop into a dream peony farm along the beautiful Little Sioux River. When grain harvest was completed by August 2020, four acres were plowed, lime was laid, and the ground well worked to prepare the field. A tractor’s GPS and tire tracks were used to keep straight rows and even spacing for the field layout.
“Family and friends came to help lay landscape fabric and we were able to roll out half the field on a Saturday,” she said, “That night, wind awoke me as the Derecho stormfront that slammed southern Iowa moved through. Let’s just say we had to redo some of the landscape fabric, but I was grateful we didn’t see what southern Iowa did.”
The peony roots were hand planted September through November.
“The landscape fabric helps lessen the weed pressure, and during these drought years, it held the moisture which was a great benefit to the young growing plants. Peonies do not like to have wet feet so they tend to be drought tolerant when established,” she shared.
Shelly designed her farm to have strips of main cut production varieties and included an area showcasing the American Peony Society’s (APS) award winners since 1923 and a growing collection of her favorite novelty varieties.
“I just had to have some of them!” she said, “I love bidding on them at APS auctions and buying from my favorite vendors and other peony enthusiasts. We now have 250 varieties on our farm of over 7,000 peony plants.”
Her love for peonies is something she desires to share, so as she created plans, she took into consideration other agritourism-based farms, such as local Getting’s Garden strawberry farm and other peony farms across the country.
“What inspired me was how every year we visit Getting’s Garden as a family together with my kids and their grandparents, and I wanted to create that same wonderful experience and tradition for people to enjoy peonies,” Shelly shared.
She also visited peony farms and developed relationships with other peony farmers in Alaska, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin.
“There are so many amazing people and connections I’ve made; their mentorship has been invaluable and has made my experience in farming a specialty crop smoother,” Shelly added.
One of the first things that wakes up in the garden in the spring is a peony. The little buds poke up out of the ground and the plant quickly grows, preparing its beautiful blooms.
“You can almost watch the peony grow,” Shelly exclaimed. “Blooming just after the daffodils and tulips, the peony is a great early cut flower – I am biased but they are the queen of flowers! Most have lovely fragrance, an abundance of petal layers, and make outstanding bouquets.”
A mature peony plant is bountiful and can produce a number of stems. Shelly recommended only harvesting up to half of the stems produced on the plant.
“A bouquet of 10 stems is so full and striking and so is just one stem,” she said.
In the Victorian Age, hybridizing focused on long stem length for cut flower production, which may have contributed to some variety’s tendencies to flop. Simply corralling the peony with twine or using a peony ring will help offer support to the plant. Over the last century, hybridizers have been working to counter this by developing hybrids with stronger stems. Silo Ridge Peony Farm has traditional and new hybrids available for a garden.
“During my research, I was connected withIowa Hybridizer Tim Stanek, who has introduced some amazing new varieties that are in high demand because of their unique coloring, form, size and strength,” Shelly said. “It was important for me to support a regional hybridizer by investing and displaying his work at the farm with great varieties like Kayleigh Ann, Faithful Dream, New Dimension and Anna. He has received awards for his work in hybridization and has become an incredible mentor and provided great advice.”
What many do not realize is how long it takes for a new peony variety to establish itself for market availability.
“It often takes a new peony variety twenty years to get to market scale,” she explained.
Hybridization crossing takes place during bloom season and seed pods are harvested in late summer. After planting seeds, it could take five years to establish itself enough to bloom and another five years for the hybridizer to identify characteristics for keeping the plant or not.
“Tim Stanek tosses 98% of his seedlings. If the new peony exceeds expectations, the roots are divided and planted, and they will take another four or five years to establish new plants to divide and expand quantities again for eventual introductory sale. The newer varieties will have a higher price point as they are in high demand with low supply,” she said.
The peony requires minimal care. In the spring, keep it free of grass and weeds, and after it blooms, deadhead the flowers if you do not want seed pods. In the fall, the plant should be cut down two-three inches from the ground.
With thousands of peony plants covered in an abundance of beautiful blossoms, this timeless flower will draw a multitude of visitors to Silo Ridge Peony Farm this June. Watch the website and social media to know when you are invited to the farm for peak bloom farm visit days.
“I love flowers and they are often very symbolic with all the major events of our life,” Shelly shared,” I also love how the peony is resilient yet delicate and beautiful. My dream is for Silo Ridge Peony Farm to be a place where I can share that love with my community, as well as my girls. It is a joy to see the dream come to life each spring and I look forward to guests experiencing the peonies grown a few miles from Lake Okoboji.”
Follow Silo Ridge Peony Farm Facebook page or siloridgepeonyfarm.com to stay up-to-date on field bloom progress, field visit days, and availability.
You will also find Silo Ridge Peony Farm at the Market in Park in Arnold’s Park on Saturdays Memorial Day through all of June with premade or design your own bouquets. Guests who come to the Peony Farm will have the opportunity to view the field of blooms, may select and reserve peony roots ($30-250) for fall pick up, which is the best time to plant them. The newer varieties will have a higher price point as they are newer and just becoming established. Each root will have a three-four eyed root system, as this helps the plant divide and continue to grow. Guests may also choose from premade boquets or you can design your own (10 stems $40 for example).
“It may double for quite a few years in size,” she said. “The peony is a beautiful generational flower that I’m so excited to share with our area.”
“We are so excited to share with our area and this has been a real joy to do together as a family,” Shelly added.