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Pure Peonies: A family business of beautiful blooms

Jun 1st, 2016 | Category: Community

190 varieties grown at farm near Everson

by Mary Vermillion

Renel Anderson promised her mother she would always have a garden. She doubled-down on that pledge when in 2010 she and husband Jim Wright planted thousands of tubers and opened Pure Peonies, their 7½ acre peony farm near Everson. Six years later, the fields are a riot of rare and robust peonies that visitors can purchase online or in-person as cut flowers, plants, or tubers. Pure Peonies is “for our mothers, ultimately,” Anderson said. “They are looking down from heaven and the peonies are looking up.”

Anderson, who was a stock broker for 20 years, started gardening as a way to process grief following the death of her mother. She also began to rethink her career following 9/11; the national company she worked for had NYC offices in the south tower. “My mother had a green thumb and a perfect yard. Before she passed away, I told her I would always have a garden because of her,” Anderson said.  “I thought if I was going to ‘always have a garden,’ I better go learn something.”

She enrolled in Lake Washington Institute of Technology’s horticulture program and followed up with classes at Seattle Floral Design Institute.

The Pure Peonies team includes (from left) José Jacabo, co-owner Renel Anderson, Jessica Salazar-Jacabo, and co-owner Jim Wright. Visitors will see 190 varieties of peonies at the farm’s display garden. PHOTOS BY MARY VERMILLION

The Pure Peonies team includes (from left) José Jacabo, co-owner Renel Anderson, Jessica Salazar-Jacabo, and co-owner Jim Wright. Visitors will see 190 varieties of peonies at the farm’s display garden. PHOTOS BY MARY VERMILLION

When Wright took a job working as an engineer for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the couple moved to Vancouver. True to her word, even in the city, Anderson had a garden. A fan of peonies, she was frustrated by the limited varieties available. That frustration was the seed of their future business.

Following the Olympics, the couple moved to Sudden Valley. Mother and daughter began driving local backroads to buy vegetable starts. On one of those drives, they spied property for sale on Badger Road bordered by Johnson Creek. “We didn’t need 7 ½ acres to grow our own food,” Anderson said. But, unusual varieties of peonies? Reflecting on her gardening experience, she thought there could be a market.

The couple worked to establish their new, chemical-free farm, and in 2010 planted 10,000 tubers, focusing on uncommon varieties and colors such as yellows, corals, blushes and two-toned blossoms. “I wanted to have enough to sell into the floral trade so we could expand consumers’ palates,” Anderson said.

Beyond that, they didn’t really have a plan. She recalls people would drive by, lean their heads out the window and ask, “What are you doing? Who are you going to sell all those flowers to?”

Anderson studied up. The couple tested and improved the farm’s soil. That work led them to an emerging soil amendment called biochar, a stable form of carbon manufactured from sustainably managed forest wood waste. Adding biochar to their fields, Anderson said, resulted in a bumper crop of healthy peonies in the very first year… and a second line of business. They are now biochar manufacturers under their label Black Owl; it is their largest revenue stream. Anderson is heavily involved with product research and development.

The success of that first crop of peonies continues. Anderson estimates there are 100,000 stems in the field, including an astounding variety of exquisite single blooms to extravagant doubles with blossoms bigger than an outstretched hand. Bend down to inhale a fragrance that can range from a subtle herbal scent to old-fashioned floral perfume. Some are simply elegant; others are flashy with confetti colors and tutu-shaped blossoms. An eight-person crew and Wright and Anderson cut stems seven days a week in peony season, roughly mid-April through June. During this year’s unseasonably warm spring, the crew walked the fields three times a day to cut the blossoms at their peak. By late May, the team harvested 90 percent of the blooms that typically last through June.

The harvested flowers are brought to a packing shed where workers dip the tips of the cut stems in wax and carefully stack the peonies in a 12-by-12-foot cooler to preserve the blooms. Some blossoms are sold immediately as bouquets to farm visitors or to the growing customer base from the farm’s website. They also sell to TheBouqs.com, an online florist that specializes in sustainably grown, farm-direct bouquets. On Mother’s Day alone, crew member Jessica Salazar-Jacabo packed 700 boxes of peony bouquets shipped throughout the U.S.Display Garden web

Thanks to the web and word of mouth, florists and brides across the country are ordering from Pure Peonies. “People send videos of their weddings and tell us our flowers made the day special,” Anderson said. One romantic guy calls twice a week during season to ship 50 peonies to his girlfriend in Florida.

The work isn’t over when cut flower season ends. Attention then turns to potted peonies and tuber orders for fall pick-up. In September and October, the Pure Peonies crew will be digging and dividing tubers for sale to home gardeners and nurseries.

While the business is quickly evolving, Anderson said their goals are simple. “What we have is something that brings us a lot of joy,” she said. “We want to keep our piece of organic land. Do our biochar thing, grow peonies and eke out a profit. Each year, we learn something about being more efficient. Because as beautiful as a field is when in bloom, we want them to be blooming in someone else’s garden. Our goal is not to waste any of that beauty.”

That surely would make her mother proud.

Pure Peonies is located at 2949 E. Badger Road, near Everson, and open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. during peony season. For more information see purepeonies.com, call (360) 966-7878, or visit the farm.Farmstand Peonies web

One Comment to “Pure Peonies: A family business of beautiful blooms”

  1. Karen K Aase says:

    I try to come each year & take pictures such a wonderful thing right here in Whatcom County! Love the peonies!

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