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Peony Grower Is World’s Largest Breeder
With six international distributors, Minnesota’s Swenson Gardens grows peonies for the world (Vol. 37, No. 2). No synthetic fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides are used on their 18,000 peony plants. While that’s an important selling point, what really makes the business bloom is its peony hybridization program.
  “We’re now considered the world’s largest hybridizer of new varieties,” says Keith Swenson, Swenson Gardens. “Our international business has exploded, with many of our new varieties better known in Europe than in the U.S.”
  Swenson and his wife, Becky, have around 500 new varieties they are propagating and developing that have yet to be registered. Some of these are a Swenson specialty, hybrids of standard and tree peonies. All new varieties are evaluated over a 3-year period before being released.
  By comparison, there are roughly 8,000 peony varieties registered by the American Peony Society. While not all of Swenson’s 500 will make the cut, the ones that do can be extremely popular and expensive. New seedlings are priced from $60 to as much as $2,500, as was the case with Lembrose, a new variety released in 2021.
  “Lembrose sold out within a few hours of release,” says Swenson.
  One secret to Swenson Garden’s prolific introduction program is speed. It commonly takes 10 years or more to develop and prove out a new variety. Swenson has cut that time in half with soil preparation and other technologies, none of which involve root stimulants or chemicals. The program includes composted cow manure from their herd of Dexter cattle.
  “Calcium carbonate is key to plant growth,” confides Swenson. “Calcium is the building block for all other nutrients. If you get it at or above normal, it’s amazing the production you can get.”
  Swenson offered a new opportunity for peony lovers this year. Exclusive Seedlings lets a customer buy out the entire stock of a newly released variety. This gives them the right to name the variety.
  “We have done this in the past with international distribution of a new variety, but this is new to the U.S. and Canada,” says Swenson. “There were only a handful of customers to the program this year, but we expect it to grow. It’s an opportunity to name a variety for a mother or grandmother who used to grow peonies.”
  One buyer this year was a long-term care facility in Canada. “The residents picked out the exclusive seedling they wanted,” says Swenson.
  No matter how popular the program becomes, it is not likely that Swenson will run out of hybrids. “We have around 3,000 new varieties that have yet to be tested in our selection program,” says Swenson.
  It’s not likely they will run out of plants to sell either. The Swensons planted a few hundred peonies in 2002. This past fall alone, they added 2,500 plants to the thousands already on the farm.
  Peony lovers are invited to see Swenson Gardens peonies in full bloom each June. They host 4 days of tours, posting the dates and times on their website and through social media.
  “This past year we had more than 4,500 people,” says Swenson. “Usually it’s in early June, but that can change depending on an early or late spring.”
  Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Swenson Gardens, P.O. Box 209, Howard Lake, Minn. 55349 (ph 763-350-2051; info@SwensonGardens.com; www.swensongardens.com).

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2022 - Volume #46, Issue #6