Voices from the Farm: Nicewicz Peonies
Peonies are a deluxe treasure that epitomize simple elegance. Part of their allure is that they don’t visit for too long. Their brief, beautiful stay is a reminder of the joy of living in the moment. From the end of May through the middle of June, Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton is the epicenter of peony magic, and you must get in on it.
What started as a planting of pleasure has grown to become an obsession. Eighteen years ago, Eugenia Harris (a dear friend of the Nicewicz family) planted some peonies at the farm with David Nicewicz simply because she loved peonies. After ten years had passed, they realized that they wanted it to become more. Eugenia found herself ordering peonies from all over the world, researching about growing them, and visiting peony farms. Even after moving to Austin, Texas in 2014, she remains committed to returning to Bolton every May for harvesting and again in November for planting, while David keeps watch on them all year round. As we arrive at the blooming season of 2019, Eugenia and David are entering a new realm. They stand at the threshold of something bursting with possibilities.
We visited Nicewicz Farm in Bolton to chat with Eugenia about the story of their fields of peonies. She shared with us the tips she’s learned over the years, and she let us know what the farm is offering this year during the peony harvest. Grab a french basket, straw hat, and a linen ensemble. Your cottage side garden photoshoot is about to be plotted.
SOTB: First of all, let’s talk pronunciation. Is it pea-oh-nee or pea-ah-nie?
Eugenia: We say, pea-ah-nie. But a lot of other people say pea-oh-nee.
SOTB: So it is up to the grower?
Eugenia: I guess so, yes (laughing).
SOTB: What is the story with peonies for you?
Eugenia: Well, part of my interest in them was because they generally can’t be grown in Texas where I am originally from. My mother also loved peonies, and she had them at her wedding. So when I moved up here in 1987 and later bought a house in Carlisle, I planted some in my yard and eventually had so many that I ran out of room. That is when I thought about starting to plant them with David here at Nicewicz Farm because it’s a farm (laughing).
SOTB: When was that?
Eugenia: Our first planting on the farm was in 2001. We planted three rows. It was 100 peonies total; 25 Festiva Maxima, which is the white with the reddish flecks and 25 Sarah Bernhart, which is that light pink classic peony. Then we planted 50 different ones that we weren’t familiar with. We really didn’t do anything with them, other than give them away to neighbors and friends. At that time, I was working full time and wasn’t out here on the farm. I hardly ever got to see the plants, so I never really knew what they were like in full bloom.
SOTB: That’s the thing, right? It is such a short season.
Eugenia: Exactly, it’s fast. It is easy to miss if you can’t get to the farm. At the Nicewicz’s Farm, the peonies really come before there’s anything else to harvest; next up will be blueberries, and sometimes cherries, but that won’t happen until mid to late July. The peonies bloom in the middle of what’s their planting season.
SOTB: When did you decide to plant more than those first three rows?
Eugenia: It was about 2012. The plants had just really been sitting there for ten years with only a wholesaler buying the flowers. We started planting a a few more rows that year and the following year, to try a few more varieties, but still they were basically just sitting there. Then in 2015 my sister Adriane visited the farm when they were in bloom and sent pictures. I had actually moved back to Texas by then so I was in Austin when I got the pictures. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “I planted those! I have to get back there.”
SOTB: You were missing out!
Eugenia: I know! I came up to see them, and it just completely engaged the addictive side of my personality. I became obsessed. We ended up ordering 500 or more that year and started an additional field. By 2016, we planted another 700 to 800 plants and expanded to another field. I was coming up twice a year.
SOTB: With so many plants at that point, what did you start doing with the flowers?
Eugenia: We started taking them to a few farmers markets, and through that, we have made a lot of contacts with florists in the Boston area. We would like to reach more florists in Central Mass as well because the florists who get out here to see the farm are floored.
SOTB: Can individual buyers come up to the farm to get peonies?
Eugenia: Yes, we have the self serve stand here at the farm. We generally sell more opened flowers by the stem at the stand.
SOTB: An open flower will still last a bit, right?
Eugenia: Oh sure, an open flower will last 4 or 5 days.
SOTB: Choosing your own bouquet of peonies from buckets of different kinds sounds like so much fun.
Eugenia: There is also our website where people can purchase a subscription, as well as a few individual varieties.
SOTB: What does the subscription entail?
Eugenia: You get a dozen stems each week for three weeks.
SOTB: When do they start blooming?
Eugenia: End of May, early June. If there is hot weather, they will start popping.
SOTB: What was the path of your peony education? Did you just get into it and start researching, or was it all exploratory experiential learning?
Eugenia: I guess, both (laughing). I am a software engineer, but I am taking a break from that. Basically, for the last couple of years, I have been able to obsess about peonies and did so much research on them. There are multiple flower forms and so many varieties and variables to look at.
SOTB: What are the different types of peonies?
Eugenia: Herbaceous peonies are the garden peonies, which is what we generally grow. But then there are tree peonies, which have more of a woody stem and flowers that are a bit more exotic. Then there is a relatively new class of peonies called Intersectional or Itoh, and they are a hybrid created by crossing a tree peony with an herbaceous peony.
SOTB: What about the forms?
Eugenia: I think of them in three broad categories. There are singles that generally have a single row of petals and a prominent clump of stamens in the center. The semi-double has more petals but still a relatively prominent center. Then the doubles are the classic ones with tons of petals and really giant flowers where the stamens are mostly obscured.
SOTB: What is something you have learned along the way?
Eugenia: The bloom sequence is still something I am trying to figure out. I try to keep track of the blooming schedule with a spreadsheet. What I have noticed is that the first peonies to bloom are generally corals, yellows, dark reds, hot pinks, and a few whites. Then the second week it moves into more whites and a big range of pinks and reds. The last week is heavy on whites, blushes, and pinks.
SOTB: What is your ultimate favorite?
Eugenia: I probably have ten favorites, and I develop a new one every year. But, I would say my favorite right now is Nick Shayler. It is a very substantial, full double that starts out light pink, then it opens to a paler blush color, and it often has these irregular crimson splotches. It is such an elegant flower. There are so many that are incredible.
SOTB: Is there a sought-after peony that people are hunting out?
Eugenia: Lemon Chiffon is one that people are excited about.
SOTB: You have that one!
Eugenia: We do! There is always something new coming up. There is one I am currently after called Pastelegance.
SOTB: Wait, Pastelegance? These names are outrageous. You’ve got Sword Dance, The Fawn, Prince of Darkness!? And this is just scratching the surface.
Eugenia: The names are great, aren’t they.
SOTB: You can go into a grocery store now and see a small bunch of peonies for $15.00, and they are pretty, but they aren’t the same as yours. People oftentimes think that peonies are overpriced because they don’t know what goes into them. Is there something that you can say about the difference between the peony that you can buy here versus the peony you will find in the flower section of a supermarket?
Eugenia: They are grown all over the world now, so they are becoming almost a commodity. What I have seen is that what you can get in retail outlets like that are the more common varieties. Some of the common varieties are spectacular. But here, we grow close to 150 varieties. It is also the traveling the flower goes through. By getting them locally, they will be fresher, last longer, and you’re supporting local agriculture which is so important.
SOTB: How about cutting tips?
Eugenia: The typical advice is to cut when there is a little flower color on the bud. When you squeeze the bud between your index finger and thumb, it should feel like a marshmallow. It is different for different varieties. Some you can harvest when it is hard as a marble, but I would generally say the marshmallow rule is a good one to keep. As far as cutting them, the root development depends on the foliage of the plant being able to grow after the blooming, even into the fall. If you cut all the flowers off the plant, then all the foliage isn’t there to nourish the root. The typical guideline is to take only a third of the plant. This can be interpreted as taking a third of the stems, or flowers, or cutting them shorter, so you leave more foliage lower.
SOTB: Can you force them to open?
Eugenia: You can put them in warm water and then place them in a sunny location; that would be the way to go.
SOTB: How many plants in total do you have?
Eugenia: We have about 1600 plants.
SOTB: If people come up to the farm, can they visit the fields?
Eugenia: Yes, we are happy to have people see the farm. We have two fields that we consider our display gardens. We just don’t have the resources to give tours or allow people to pick their own flowers.
SOTB: And take an obscene number of selfies?
Eugenia: Yes, all the selfies they need (laughing).
SOTB: Do you have any other flower obsessions in the works?
Eugenia: Yes, dahlias! The Nicewiczs already grow dahlias but we are adding 75 new varieties this summer. We just planted 500 of them.
If you can get the chance to talk with Eugenia about peonies, jump on it. She can describe the particular uniqueness of different varieties in a captivating manner reserved for the likes of storytellers.
Eugenia’s Peony Planting Mantras: Plant them and let it be. Have patience. They love sun, good drainage, and air circulation.
Get In On It!
Nicewicz Peonies: For your peony subscription, up to date information on blooming, and a gallery of many of the varieties offered.
Nicewicz Family Farm:
Nicewicz Pronunciation:Nish-way :)
Where: 116 Sawyer Road, Bolton
Follow ‘em: @nicewiczpeonies
Follow ‘em: @nicewiczfarm
Facebook: Nicewicz Family Farm