Red, pink, coral, white, yellow, multi-coloured – a rainbow of around 50,000 stunning blooms are produced by New England Peonies each year. Barry Philp explains that the beautiful flowers produced at Arding are highly sought after by florists around Australia, the business is a true rural success story, showing how diversification, hard work, and solid infrastructure can help when conditions are tough.
What’s the history behind the property where New England Peonies is situated — flowers haven’t always been grown there, I believe?
The Philp property at Arding is a fourth-generation orchard, which has been run by my parents, Yvonne and Graham Philp, and now, by me.
Due to continuing low fruit prices and yields, diversification has been an important strategy to ensure the farm’s financial viability into the future, with mixed farming now occurring.
Although fruit has historically been the main focus of the property, the Peonies now account for a significant part of the farm income.
How did the idea to grow Peonies come about?
In 1998, Marilyn Pidgeon, a Peony enthusiast and expert, approached the Philp family to use the land at Arding to grow Peonies. Marilyn and John Pidgeon were interested in using the farm to grow Peonies, as Marilyn, who had grown up in Tasmania, knew that Peonies grow well in places that have cold winters and where apples are harvested.
The Philps also owned the necessary infrastructure, such as tractors, cool rooms, water and irrigation systems, which enabled an easier start to producing Peonies.
Thus, the Pidgeon-Philp partnership commenced, with the land and practical expertise being provided by Graham, Yvonne and I.
Initially, a hectare of flowers was set aside, with 2,000 plants being planted next to the apple orchard. The original plants were sourced from Tasmania, Victoria and New Zealand.
The first commercial delivery to florists occurred in 2004.
In 2012, due to personal reasons and a change in circumstances, Marilyn and John decided to step down from their share of the business partnership, leaving my parents and I to continue to further develop the business. Marilyn still enjoys visiting the farm and providing advice and sharing her Peony expertise.
Since 2012, the Peony patch has been expanded, with the inclusion of new varieties. With the increase in flower numbers, there has been a considerable increase in florists and customers looking to obtain New England Peonies in the springtime.
Peonies are a very special product, which people love receiving and look forward to each springtime. No wonder Peonies are called the “King of the Flowers”!
Growing, picking and bunching the flowers brings great joy to my parents and I. Knowing how much our customers appreciate our Peonies is immensely rewarding.
Why are these flowers particularly suited to our New England climate?
Peonies can only be grown in cold climates, with cold frosty winters. Peonies need a pronounced period of winter chilling in order to bloom well. Drier winters actually suit the plants, with arid conditions preventing waterlogging. The drier air also assists with fungal disease prevention.
Roughly how many different varieties of Peonies do you grow on the property?
New England Peonies has the largest number of flower species in the region. Currently, there are 29 different Peony varieties being grown, resulting in a wide range of flower colours and forms available for florists.
The Peony colours range from coral, through different shades of pink, to red, maroon, white and creamy yellows.
The species include varieties such as Coral Charm, Monsieur Julie Elie, Marguerite Gerard, Shirley Temple, Etched Salmon, Dr Greveaux, Marie Lemoine. This ensures a broad variety of product from which customers can choose and as such, makes New England Peonies unique.
You’ve recently sourced some Peony varieties from New Zealand. What’s particularly special about these species?
In 2015, we did a second import from New Zealand, providing us with an opportunity to provide very large “semi-double” red, white and Gardenia type Peonies to florists around the country. These blooms are large in size and flower across all stages of the Peony season.
There’s obviously a lot more to growing Peonies than sticking a plant in the ground, watering it and watching it grow! How much work is involved with a Peony crop, particularly when it comes to harvesting?
Growing herbaceous Peonies is a year-long process, with work across each season required to ensure good plant health and a large crop of flowers.
The process commences with good ground preparation and rhizomes planting in the autumn. Peonies may take up to three years for flowering to occur following planting. In the words of an American grower: “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and in the third year they leap”.
Planting and subdivision of the rhizomes occurs in April and May. During the winter, the plants are in dormancy, but intensive weeding occurs to eliminate later plant competition. In August, the first shoots appear of the early blooming varieties, and at this stage, some fertilisation and watering commences.
As the plants develop and grow in size in September, fungal issues are addressed, and watering continues. From mid-October to mid-November (depending on the season) the flower buds develop and are ready for picking.
To ensure a high quality of flower, each bud is felt for density and shape before it is picked. Once picked, the buds are stored in a cool room, ready for sorting (again for quality control), bunching, packing and distribution.
Over the summer, the plants are maintained with watering and a post-harvest fertiliser. The plants are then cut back to 2.5 to 3 cm in height during April, or when the leaves change colour. The trash is removed from the Peony patch to minimise disease spread, and so the cycle begins again.
Peonies are a herbaceous pre-annual plant, and once planted, the rhizome keeps growing, with flowering occurring for many seasons.
If you had to estimate roughly how many blooms/bunches of Peonies you produced each year – what would be the total?
New England Peonies currently produces approximately 10,000 bunches (50,000 flowers) per year. However, due to a substantial division of plants, it is hoped we will be producing 14,000 bunches in the next two years.
Where/how do you market your blooms?
New England Peonies are sent to Sydney and a variety of smaller towns in NSW and interstate. In addition, flowers are sold in Armidale and across the New England region.
The business is marketed through an active and interactive Facebook page and Instagram, which has led to a broad client interest and the development of relationships with many florists. We encourage florists to share their arrangements with us to display on Facebook and use Instagram to ensure cross-promotion between ourselves and florists and their customers.
It is hoped a web page will be up and running shortly, to allow customers to review Peony colour, size and form before purchasing.
New England Peonies prides itself on supplying a high-quality, beautiful flower. As such, word of mouth promotion has been an important marketing tool amongst florists, as they share with each about our flowers.
How is your property currently weathering the drought?
Fortunately, the Peony patch is able to be watered with drip irrigation, which conserves water, and places moisture where it is most needed and as such, maintains basic plant health. Established plants can tolerate the dry to a certain degree.
The rest of the property has been significantly affected by drought. The winter hay, which has been sown, will only yield if significant rain occurs, and the cattle on the property are reliant on last year’s hay stock.
What are your business plans/goals for the rest of the year?
Into the future, we are looking to expand the early season varieties, to maximise market share and to further develop the “high-end” highly sought after large bloom Peonies, particularly in colours such as coral, red and white.
Where can we find out more about your business?
There are a number of ways of contacting us. Barry’s phone number is 0422 260 600, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also contact us through the messages on Facebook – look for New England peonies https://www.facebook.com/New-England-Peonies-851919914862782
We also have a New England Peonies Instagram account, and we reply to messages.
Interview: Jo Robinson.
Thanks also to Gillian Traise, for helping to compile info for the interview.