Market Forces: Peony's Envy
Each week, Patch talks with a vendor at the Summit Farmer’s Market to bring you more about the people behind the produce (and those pickles and pies).
This week, Patch spoke with Kathleen Garan, peony grower and owner of Peony’s Envy in Bernardsville. Plastic bags of peony roots are on offer at her market stand, which comes to Summit only in autumn, the best time for planting. Each spring, Garan also opens her garden to the public so visitors can see more than 30,000 peonies in bloom.
What’s your background? How did you get into this business?
I’m a linguist. My background is in international corporate consulting. I lived abroad for 20 years in South America and Asia. Venezuela, primarily, Taiwan, and Singapore were the three countries that I lived in for the most time. I’m fluent in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. It’s a testament to how global the economy is that on most days, to run a business in Bernardsville, N.J., I speak in three languages.
No part of your past experience is ever wasted. No skill is not employed. Twenty years ago, if you said I was going to be a farm owner I would have said, ‘no.’ We bought land that was already assessed as farmland. Peony’s Envy was what grew out of wanting to be true to farmland assessment. It’s a wonderful tax break, but the idea is that you are going to use it as farmland, not for development. This grew out of what would work on the land that we have. We have a fairly wooded piece of land. I didn’t want to use pesticides or have to irrigate, and the deer don’t eat peonies. You get all the advantages of roses without having to spray. You don’t need to worry about drought or take water unnecessarily out of wells and aquifers. I grow organically. Peonies are an Old World plant for New World gardens. It’s a great plant for New Jersey.
I always wanted a peony garden, but I couldn’t afford one. I was lucky enough to have this piece of land, and I’m doing what works. I read article years ago in the Wall Street Journal that said that successful businesses are Dao. They flow like water and take the path of least resistance. I wanted to grow irises, but they take too much water. Then I wanted to have an orchard and have people come up and pick fruit. Neither of those ideas was successful. Growing peonies has so far been the path of least resistance.
When I first started, I didn’t really think about what I brought to the business. But after failing out at irises and failing at an orchard and wanting a peony garden, it turns out that China is the main grower and hybridizer of peonies. They have millennia of experience with this plant. I speak the language, and I know how to import. So based on the idea that nothing from the past is wasted, I went to Heze, in China, and I learned how to grow and work with peonies—in Mandarin, out in the country. So wake up, Kathleen! Take a look at what you’ve done.
Would you describe your business and what you do?
Peony’s Envy turned three on Oct. 26. It’s the largest peony farm in New Jersey, and the largest peony farm and display garden in the Northeast. We grow 250 different varieties of tree and herbaceous peonies. We have an online business—we sell mail-order, ship nationwide and to Canada. We work the spring trade shows nationwide: from February to May there are gardening flower shows across the nation. We work the biggest shows–Philadelphia, New Jersey, Seattle, San Francisco. I go to all the shows the first year, and after that a crew of people will go out and work those shows, and I go and explore new shows.
The farm is in Bernardsville, and is open from May 1 to June 15. It’s a private garden and nursery, but it’s open to the public during the day. It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea: that you see the peonies in bloom and you would either buy plants then or order roots for the fall. People come in and they can walk and talk, and it opens them up–they have a good time. In the fall, we do local farmers’ markets, which have the dual purpose of letting people in New Jersey know that we are there, and that Bernardsville has this little treasure, and they are a good venue for sales coming into planting season.
This will be our 2nd or 3rd year at the Summit market. The only time we’re in the market is late Fall, because it’s peony-planting time. We come in for a few weeks, that’s all. Peak availability is the end of October, so the Summit market is good because it’s one of the markets that goes into November.
I’m the sole owner but I have a seasonal staff. This year a woman named Gretchen is doing the Summit market for me, so you can go say ‘hi’ to Gretchen at the market. The best thing to do is to hire someone and give them that market for the season. But if someone can’t make it, I fill in.
How does one take care of peonies?
Our Web site has a section on peony care. They are tolerant and disease resistant, so as long as they have lots of sun and soil that drains, they will grow. Herbaceous peonies can be planted any time you can dig them into the ground. They are more widely available in the Fall. Before globalization, peonies could only traditionally be bought in the Fall. Now we can get them in the pots in the spring and have roots in the Fall. So you can come to the garden and see them blooming and buy them in pots, or view the pretty pictures on the Web site and order them for the Fall. Fall is traditionally the best time to plant them.
Peonies are traditionally a flower for gravesites. They are bridal too, but they will bloom for hundreds of years without a lot of care, and they bloom traditionally on Memorial Day, which is why they were used for gravesites.
What’s your best-seller?
It depends on the group, and sometimes it depends on fashion. Guaranteed, whatever Martha Stewart says is her favorite will sell out before anything. Martha Stewart sets the trends for what brides carry, and a lot of other things. So that root stock will sell out quickly. Sometimes it depends on the customer’s nationality. Americans will buy more pinks and whites; Chinese audiences will buy more dark merlots and reds. Last year, I sold out of all my pinks in early May. But some people come in, and all they are interested in is fragrance. There are nine different flower forms of peonies, and nine different colors, so there’s something for everyone. The combinations are endless.
I sell 150 different varieties of herbaceous peonies and about 100 varieties of tree peonies. We offer a smaller selection at the Summit Market. At the end of October, the selection at the farm is the biggest, and if someone doesn’t see the combination they want at the market, I’m open at the farm every Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
Keeping all the balls in the air. I do the farmers markets, I do the flower shows, I do the farm, I do the mail order, and I do the open garden. Each one of those has its season. When the seasons overlap, it’s making sure you’re on time and looking best when you are there. As with a lot of small business people, if I were 10 people, I’d be just as disorganized, just 10 times as busy.
The first year it was garden, the second year it was garden and flower shows, then those two and farmer’s markets, and then online. So is that enough? Are we good, or what’s the next big thing? I lecture to local garden clubs and have started to lecture more broadly and to bigger venues. So I am keeping up so that my knowledge is more than most of the people in the room who have a background in horticulture.
I work on being able to manage successfully where we are, and then to make the next thing better. I sent out a contact e-mail, and people who responded said, ‘I’ve been trying to reach you.’ So there are the pieces of customer service–filling all your orders, all the details, making sure not to drop things–and things do drop. I deal with all the details of any small business: I have an accountant; I have to file taxes by the 20th, I have to be attentive to customers.
I have to think about next year: what are our sales goals? I’ve attended a lot of professional organizations’ conferences this year: the Cut Flower Association of America, the Garden Writers Association of America. A lot of the people who are gardeners are 20 years older than I am. People ask, ‘do you hybridize your own peonies?’ and I say, ‘no, I haven’t been doing it long enough.’ But it’s interesting observing them. First they were doing two acres, then 50 acres, and now they’re two acres again. Because they tried to grow out of what made sense–this is a happy place for this business–and then they tried to be bigger, and A) they weren’t any more profitable and B) it wasn’t fun anymore. And I think the balance of those things is very important.
What’s the best part of your work?
All of it. I love it. There’s an incredible learning curve. I think my first love is academics–I’m a university brat; my dad was a professor—so when there’s a lot of learning, I’m happy. And there’s a lot of learning—sometimes too much. One is alive and well and using all parts of one’s brain. The other part is that I feel good about this as a business and a business model. I feel like it's ethical. It’s OK to do this. I don’t have a big carbon footprint. Helping people in their gardens, and creating a space in my own garden for people to come to is something that’s worthwhile. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be doing this, and maybe in five years there will be not enough learning. But I find that it’s good, and feeling good about what I do makes me happy.
Can I give a shout out? The girl who has designed my Web site and helped me with the graphic with the company is someone that I couldn’t have done this without. Shea Powell–she has a Web site, www.sheapowelldesign.com. With any small business or successful venture, we’re never alone in the process, and we really rely on a community of people helping us. We put our heads together, but it was her ability in design that has allowed Peony’s Envy to have a look.
How did you come up with your business’ name?
I had a girlfriend who had a dinner party–it was New Year’s Eve, or maybe Christmas Eve dinner, and it was six months before our launch, and I needed a name. I was boring everyone out of their minds. It was after my kids went to school and I wasn’t a full-time mother anymore, and I was putting everyone to sleep talking about how I was going to be a farmer. This woman was sitting next to my husband, really bored, and she nudged my husband and asked him if he had peony’s envy.
I’m sorry if it offends anyone. There are people who say, ‘oh, I can’t say that word.’ I say, ‘peony?’ It’s Freud, and I think his theory’s wrong, but it’s the name.