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Cromwell’s Peonies Impress World’s Most Discerning Buyers

A vase of peony blooms can instantly transform a room from dull to delightful. Even the names of the different varieties are charming…Bowl of Cream, James’ Pillow, Coral Sunset, Christmas Velvet and on it goes. Central Otago provides what Tarras grower John Morrison describes as ‘the bloody best climate” in the country for peonies and sixteen years in the export business has allowed him and wife Mary Wood to fine tune their grower skills. The reward for the hardworking couple is an enviable lifestyle and good financial return. Peonies like their personal space, John says, and when the winter comes, an undisturbed sleep is in order with lots of good hard frosts. “They don’t like competition from other plants, they need all the sunlight they can get. And they have got to have a certain amount of cold and hard frost to allow them to break dormancy.” The latter is mainly why the plants thrive in Central Otago, producing premium buds that can fetch upwards of $30 each in high-end Asian and Middle Eastern markets. “All those buyers want is a peony that is going to bloom spectacularly and they don’t care what it costs.” The biggest threat, John says, would be a hail storm prior to the intense six week harvest.  There would be no saving plants and their fat, vunerable buds, spread outdoors over three hectares. Thankfully this had never occurred during their 16 years at Tarras, steadily working at establishing a reputation of reliability with buyers and exporters. “They know now that we can supply a large number of consistently high quality peonies, often these days the buyers won’t even check our boxes.” Harvest Season All Go The couple and a neighbouring grower work together at harvest time and a crew of about 11 people pick and sort the buds.  Stems are plunged straight into buckets of cold water to retard the progression to bloom and placed in a chiller at between one and three degC. “They stay in there for at least 12 hours to take the field heat out of them, then they’re graded and processed, boxed up with ice and twice a week the truck takes them overnight to Auckland.” Some go to florists in the city but most go straight out to luxury-market buyers overseas.  The rest of the year John and Mary happily handle the work, between other jobs, assisted only by four-legged pruners. “We leave four or five stems on the plants to allow the starches and sugars to go back into the roots for next year’s production. In autumn the neighbour’s sheep come in and strip all the dead leaves off for us and leave a bit of fertiliser behind.” The plants are irrigated in summer but are pest and disease free due the region’s dry climate.  There’s no spray regime, John says, aside from zapping a few weeds along the rows. “I’m really happy to tend them, I don’t regard it as a burden.  There’s never a pressing need and I really love going out and tending them as required.” His best tip for home gardeners is to resist the urge to pick all the buds for adorning the house. “Don’t ever pick off all the stems in any one year…as tempting as that may be.”

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