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Planting peonies

At Swenson Gardens in Minnesota, pesticide-free flowers are the family business

Becky Swenson

Planting peonies

Swenson Gardens in Howard Lake, Minn.—about 45 miles west of Minneapolis—began in 2002 when Keith and Becky Swenson put a few hundred peony roots in the ground. Because they were committed to homeschooling their children, Britta, 6, and Luke, 4, they wanted a family business that could teach their children the value of work.

Peony propagation was Keith’s idea—and he wanted to do it without chemicals: “We wanted our fields to be clean—especially as our kids grew up, crawling around on their hands and knees and weeding.”

It took Becky about five years—around the time they moved from leased land to their own 140-acre farm—to get on board. In the early years Keith worked a day job to pay the bills, and she schooled the kids. They all pitched in to care for the peonies. That meant slathering the children with sunscreen and explaining why they had to work instead of watch a movie. When Keith got home, the family would drive to the field to pull weeds.

They hand-weed and encourage honeybees, butterflies, and good aphids to eat the bad ones.

Becky remembers when sunscreen would find its way into the children’s eyes and cause them to cry: “We’d have to bring them back home, clean them up and go back out to the field. … They were not willing workers.” But gradually the children became excited about the business. Becky also embraced it: “I realized this was really something God wanted us to do.”

Because they wanted to raise their flowers without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that other peony growers use, they had to find alternatives. They leave future peony fields fallow and amend soils with animal manure and compost. Their motto: “A scoop of poop will do.”

They keep down weeds before they plant with tillage instead of pesticide. They hand-weed and encourage honeybees, butterflies, and good aphids to eat the bad ones. The result: robust peony plants. Labor costs are higher, but Keith says, “We get more vigorous, disease resistant, and absolutely gorgeous flowers to show off God’s creation.” They name new peony hybrids after God’s attributes.

Swenson Gardens

They’ve also learned to pray for and rely on God’s mercy. In 2019 workers dug, divided, tagged, and washed thousands of peony roots for shipping. The Swensons closed the barn doors on the harvest, a year’s worth of effort, and sat down for dinner as a violent wind whipped trees and rain pelted the barn. Family room windows overlooking a hay field rattled loudly, and walls seemed to move. The next day they learned that a tornado had headed right toward them but abruptly shifted, flattening the hay in the south field. They had worked hard, but “the Lord is in complete control,” Becky said.

Almost two decades after its founding, the business has flourished. The Swensons now plant 15,000 peony roots annually and ship throughout the United States and the world. They teach leadership skills to the teens who weed the gardens, and each June they host thousands of photographers, plein-air artists, and garden club members during Peony Field Days.

—David Aeilts is a World Journalism Institute graduate


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