Organic Peonies – Off the beaten path

Translated from: Langen, E. “Biologische pioenen – Sprong in het diepe.” In: Greenity, 2024, May 31st, pp. 12-15.

Organic agricultural farm Verduyn in Zeewolde (The Netherlands) started growing organic peonies four years ago. For 25 years Rob and Lenni have cultivated organically and they were looking for a new challenge next to their cauliflowers, peas, rhubarb, grass and potatoes. They succeeded in this and now they are already growing some 9 acres of peonies. This year they’ll be harvesting their first sizable numbers. A crop both valuable and risky is quite a gamble. “It’s exciting, but we’ll see,” they say.

“You’ll have to talk with only me for a while,” Lenni Verduyn excuses herself. She and her husband Rob are busy. Only just had they planted their potatoes, when in the week of Ascension Day the weather turned. Suddenly peonies burst into bloom. “We were astonished at the speed we had to start cutting.” By May 6th they were walking through their peony fields for the first time. And yes, on Mother’s Day as well Lenni was walking through them all day. They were harvesting the varieties Gardenia, Diana Parks, Coral Sunset, Kansas, Soft Salmon Saucer, Angel Cheeks and Duchesse de Nemours. Less than a week later they’re also harvesting both the pink and Red Sarah Bernhardt. The white Ivory Victory and Dr. Alexander Fleming are still to follow. Lenni is sitting outside on the porch at a large table. In a vase a beautiful bouquet of peonies is blooming. Inside the house even more peony bunches can be seen. “We’d like to know how the varieties are doing in a vase.” She has just changed into her clean clothes fast because an hour ago she was still harvesting rhubarb in the fields. Last year they cut the first peony stems the very last days of May. Peony harvest this year is however very early. “Until a week ago we thought it would still take a while due to the cold weather and then suddenly you’ll have to walk the fields twice a day because they bloom that fast.”

Rob and Lenni Verduijn

Rob and Lenni Verduijn

Reinventing the wheel themselves

Peonies as new crop was added because Rob and Lenni were looking for something else because carrots and onions were scrapped from their crop rotation. In May and June they’re harvesting rhubarb. That’s a crop demanding a lot of manual labour and so during this period they already have some staff around. Thanks to this peonies fit in nicely. The floricultural crop seems “a beautiful challenge” to them. It certainly is as indeed the common cultivation of peonies already is full of such challenges. “You’ll need pesticides, otherwise it’ll never work,” is a remark Verduyn has heard more than once from regular peony growers. Despite that and the fact they’ll have to reinvent the wheel themselves because there are hardly any organic peony growers, they went along this road off the beaten path.

By now Rob has joined our company at the table to clarify some technical crop measures. Matter of fact as he is, he says: “You can talk for 10 years about such a big step. But if you really want something, you just have to do it.” His wife adds that the new crop really is of them both. “Rob is the farmer, but the process of starting the peony crop and getting to know it: I help a lot.” What Lenni attracts mostly in this new learning curve is that they all started it at the same time. Their permanent staff of four Romanians learns with them every day. “That’s what makes it fun. We think and discuss matters with them. That creates a lot of involvement.”

A fixed group of four Romanian employees helps with the harvest

Lesser quality

The first 1,700 peony roots, five varieties, were planted in 2020. Later they planted more. “The investment still hurts,” Verduyn jokes, but with a price tag of some 2 to 8 euros per root this is obviously at least partly true. By now there are some 85,000 plants on 9 acres. Last year they cut some 6,000 stems. Quality was somewhat lesser than in 2022, when Spring was very dry. Rob: “It didn’t really matter because last year the quality of regular peonies was also rather poor. The trade then doesn’t see any difference between regular and organic ones.”

This year Verduyn expects to see a larger difference. Regular peonies will have prettier foliage. The long wet period in Spring this year resulted in a difficult growing season. “This year we had quite some cold nights and night frost twice when buds were already visible. When it’s cold the plants don’t grow anymore and that’s never a good thing,” the farmer knows. Hail on April 17th resulted in some scars on the leaflets. By and large there’s somewhat more fungal infections than last year. Some buds are also not well rounded this year but instead rather pointed. “That results in another bloom in the vase,” and she draws close the vase on the table. The pointed buds open somewhat earlier on one side; but later the flower unfurls further. Fortunately the flower does open completely.

Due to weather conditions they’ve reassessed their harvestable stem numbers downwards from 80,000 to between 60,000 and 70,000. On average they cut 3 stems per plant and pick the prettiest ones. The remainder is left on the plant so it can grow further and stronger. Rob: “For example the stems with some dried up buds resulting from fungus damage are left behind.” A small corner in the peony field shows some snail damage. “They eat right through the stems, when it’s windy those stems then flop.”

Peonies are collected in cubic meter crates, then cooled and bunched

Spraying license

Verduyn already sees some difference between varieties’ tolerance of diseases, but thinks it too early to judge. He’d like to dig into the green crop protection pesticides available in the market nowadays and in the future. Until now he hasn’t applied any organic pesticides because he has no spraying license. In Spring he asked a contractor to spray his peony fields with an organic field sprayer with the new product Microthiol Special Liquid (a.i. 80% w/v sulphur) against leaf diseases like real mildew. It didn’t end well. “The closest contractor with an organic field sprayer is some 20 miles away in Biddinghuizen. You can’t just let him come over here for a mere two acres…”

With the latest Spring seasons still in his mind, this farmer is about to go back to school to get his spraying license. “Even organic slug pellets are out of the question when you don’t have a spraying license.” In his shed the farmer has been hosting a field sprayer these last three years, still untouched. He only cleaned it a few times. Next year he’d like to use it, then he’ll be able to pick the best time and try to keep botrytis in his peonies at bay. “A wetting and cohesive agent added and then the product can do its’ work for a few days. We could apply it every 5 to 7 days.”

The first two years of peony growing, weed control is most challenging. His fields show chickweed, grass and thistles. Verduyn plants his peonies in furrows, so he can drive through them with his tractor and mechanical hoeing machine. Rob: “Regrettably that couldn’t be done this year. The field was far too wet and I don’t want to risk spreading disease.” That’s why in March they were manually hoeing and until the time the plants were too high they also used their weeding trailer. The farmer is however rather positive about weed pressure this year, only one small corner shows too much grass.

Due to the wet Spring the crop does show some fungal infections

Growth requires adaptations

Next year the peony crop will deliver far more flowers. They’re aiming at between 180,000 and 200,000 stems. An increase that large will require some adaptations in their company, they realize. At the farm and in their shed some of it can already be seen. Lenni walks with us across the farm into the direction of some large cooling facilities. Along the premises is a frame, designed by Rob and welded by him. It’s part of a harvest cart he wants to use next year during peony season. With so much more stems they won’t be able to get it all done with only their fixed group of Romanian employees.

Arriving in the large cooler where you can see the large cubic meter crates filled with peonies being cooled, there’s a grading machine in waiting. “I expect we’ll be trying it out this year a little bit.” For the most part packing is still done manually, five stems to a bunch. Next year they want to split the cooler in two with one part comfortably warmer where the peonies will then be processed.

Lenni and Rob are enjoying their steps with peonies but find it also thrilling, for it remains an open question whether it will be a profitable crop. Two aspects are still uncertain: will quality remain good the following years and can they find enough market to sell them all? Rob: “We cannot yet say whether it will be successful. We’re very careful and realistic about that. But for sure we’re going to try and give it our very best efforts.”

Half of harvest already sold

The first flowers from Verduyn three years ago were sold through the online shop from Biddinghuizen. The farm also sells part of its rhubarb there. The peonies are packed into boxes of ten stems and then collected by Hofweb. Hofweb delivers them to their customers the following day. Rob expects to sell them some 4,000 to 5,000 peonies this year. Both Lenni and Rob think it’s a valuable client because they receive feedback from their customers. They also offer their organic peony bunches through their own website, but only very few are sold this way. Lenni: “We haven’t advertised it much and to be honest we don’t really know if we want to proceed with it because it involves a lot of extra labor.”

Last year they also sold to Bloomon; some 1,800 stems, destined for their organic flower bunches. This year some 5,000 to 10,000 stems are going their way. For the remainder of the harvest Verduyn is still looking for wholesalers. He has already found a driver with a fixed route along florists in Amsterdam.

Half of their harvest is already reserved this way and negotiations are ongoing for the remainder. How that evolves remains to be seen. Rob: “In my experience people shout “sustainability” on Sundays, but by Monday they already think otherwise.” Lenni believes the trend of sustainable flowers at florists will take off: “the trade will adapt to it more and more.”

If all goes well the company will have some 300,000 organic peony stems in 3 years. “It will be exciting, of course we’d like to sell them as purely ‘organic’ but if quality remains good there’s always the escape option to sell them as regular ones at the auction.”

Verduijn Zeewolde


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