Josh McCullough recalls a Memorial Day picnic when storm clouds sent the whole family running for the fields to clear Red Twig Farms’ remaining peonies. Yes, profits were on the line—but as gardeners, we’ve all been there. In fact, humans’ love affair with these spring divas dates back more than 1,000 years to China, where the ancients surely cursed the sky each time a downpour left their gorgeous, ruffled pink blooms battered and bruised.
No wonder, then, that we’ve evolved to relish peony season with near-hedonistic abandon, filling vases with giant blossoms and drinking in their heady perfume. In this universal ritual, Josh’s wife, Lindsey, saw an opportunity. In 2016, she threw her first Peony Season Opener at the McCulloughs’ cut flower and branch farm in New Albany, Ohio. The festival includes food trucks, a plant sale and buckets overflowing with loose peonies for bouquets. Lindsey’s instincts were right: The event drew 168 people the first year. Turnout surpassed 1,400 the second.
Red Twig Farms.
The McCulloughs, who own the farm with Josh’s parents, Karl and Terri, grow 19 varieties of peonies for production. At the Opener, shoppers snack on doughnuts and assemble armfuls of frilly blush-pink orbs, ginormous classic whites, showy bubblegum-pink bombs, luxe bowl-shape corals and even the prize of many brides’ Pinterest boards: the fragrant, heirloom ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. Every few years, Josh trials new varieties in his test plots. It’s a slow process. Peony plants need three years to mature—but once they do, they often outlast their gardeners, surviving more than a century.
Josh McCullough with his wife, Lindsey, at Red Twig Farms.
“We love hearing customers’ peony stories from their grandmothers’ gardens and seeing them now snap pictures of their own kids with bouquets at our sale,” Lindsey says. It’s a rare opportunity. Red Twig Farms’ Peony Season Opener lasts just one day in late May (sold out for 2019), a pop-up celebration as festive and fleeting as peonies themselves.
Red Twig Farms' peony sale
Red Twig Farms sells 19 different peonies (and grows even more that aren’t yet in production). The American Peony Society recognizes six broad categories: Single, Double, Semi-Double, Japanese, Anemone and Bomb Double. The terms refer to the arrangement and density of the petals.
(Clockwise from upper left): ‘Dr. Alexander Fleming’, a fabulously electric hue, with nice sturdy stems; white ‘Festiva Maxima’, huge, with flecks of alluring magenta on some petals; ‘Morning Kiss’, an aptly named peony in the softest blushing white; ‘Coral Charm’, an early pop of almost tropical garden color; (far right) ‘Coral Sunset’, a fast bloomer with dark foliage; small rose-pink ‘Celebrity’, a Red Twig Farms classic that always goes fast; large white ‘Duchesse de Nemours’, a super fragrant, 150-year-old wedding standard; large pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, an heirloom variety dating to 1906; small ‘Raspberry Sundae’, delivers a sweet perfume to match its irresistible name; (lower left) ‘Pink Parfait’, densely packed bubblegum petals; (middle left) ‘Buckeye Belle’, a more delicate peony in an intense, almost sultry reddish pink; (middle) ‘Garden Treasure’, a favorite in Josh and Lindsey’s private beds, for its surprising shade of lemon yellow.
Josh and Lindsey harvest most of their peonies as buds. To enjoy the blooms longer in the garden, stabilize plants with ringed stakes or grow-through supports—a bit like tomato cages. After it rains, hurry out and shake off water to help droopy peonies spring back.
Peonies like to take a starring role in arrangements. Ornamental kale, hosta leaves, dusty miller or lamb’s ears all make attractive pairings.
Peonies start as golf ball-size buds, then explode into flamboyant, aromatic flowers measuring up to 8 inches across.
Terri McCullough, Josh’s mom, explains how pros save buds for bouquets. Bonus: This method limits the ants that love to ride in on peonies.
1) To maximize vase-life, harvest peonies when the buds start to show some color and feel soft like a marshmallow.
2) Cut each flower’s stem to about the length of your forearm and strip off all the lower leaves.
3) Wrap peonies in newspaper and store flat in a refrigerator for two to three weeks.
4) To rehydrate, trim an inch off stem ends and place in warm water. Peonies will open in about 24 hours; darker hues take longer.
How to Grow Peonies
Peonies thrive with full sun and well-drained soil in zones 3–8. Plant them 2 to 3 feet apart, keeping the crown of the roots even with the soil surface. (Fall is best.) Wait at least two years, ideally three, to cut blooms.
You may be tempted to leave every baby flower on the plant, but removing all but one bud on each stem pushes the plant’s energy to the remaining bloom to make it as big as possible.
Pretty in Pink
Josh and Lindsey’s niece, Charlotte, holds ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, ‘Dr. Alexander Fleming’, ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and ‘Pink Parfait’.
Great Sources for Plants
Red Twig Farms, New Albany, Ohio
Hollingsworth Peonies, Skidmore, Missouri
Old House Gardens, Ann Arbor, Michigan