My journey with American Grown Flowers to Alaska, Part I

 2017 has been a whirlwind year and one that I will never forget.  For the last 6 years, since I opened Petals by the Shore in January 2011,  I’ve dreamed up what life changing moments I would experience.  I dreamed of traveling and designing in beautiful locations where the scenery influenced my creations.  I dreamed of finding my own style and my place in the floral design world and I dreamed that I would find my true calling.  2017 has provided all these fulfilled dreams, and more, because I decided to welcome change and challenge myself.  Two years ago I had a simple idea to design a bouquet, each season, using only what grew on one local farm.  That idea exploded into life-changing opportunities to support and design with locally grown and American Grown flowers for events that are inspiring others to embrace and support our American flower farms. 

One month ago I boarded a plane from Homer, Alaska to fly home to Maryland after spending a week on Scenic Place Peonies farm – a Certified American Grown Flowers and Certified Naturally Grown farm.  I was there as the featured floral designer for the Field to Vase Dinner Tour put on by Certified American Grown Flowers.  With tears streaming down my face, that morning, I knew I was changed forever.  This was the week that had fulfilled my long held dreams and cemented my future.  Never had I been so blown away by the hospitality that was shown to me or been completely enamored by my surroundings that every moment took my breath away.  I had found my place of inspiration. 

Spending a week on an Alaskan peony farm was incredibly eye-opening, humbling and inspiring.  Alaskan peony farmers are fierce!  These are dedicated, hard working flower farmers that push it to the limit to provide a premium product for the world.  No where else can you get peonies in July, August and September.  They harvest from sun up to sun down, which mind you is often 20 hour days of sunshine.  The weather can also be unpredictable – but they remain steadfast through all the trials nature throws at them to grow a product that is like none other.

I realized during my week at Scenic Place Peonies that designers in the lower 48 do not understand how amazing and superior Alaskan peonies are.  There is a disconnect between what we see online and what we understand of the Alaskan peony.   These peonies are often three times the size, up to eight inches across, of what we receive during the other months of the year from the U.S. or abroad.  The colors and varieties are more vibrant and richer due to the long hours of sunlight.  They grow at a rapid rate, breaking through the soil to flowering within four weeks. That’s half the time it takes for peonies anywhere else in the world.  These are flowers that can change our entire event work and elevate it to a level that we didn’t know could exist in late summer.  

What is also incredible about Alaskan peonies are the farmers behind them.  With Alaskan peony farming only coming to full fruition in the last ten years the growers of those peonies have created a strong community with a desire to mentor one another that's much stronger than I’ve seen among other flower farmers.  They rally around one another as a new farm opens and support one another as a tribe.  While they are all competitors they also know that they must work together to advance the awareness and sale of their product.  They have  formed the Alaska Peony Growers Association which hosts conferences, has established growers’ schools and has also developed a certification program for harvesters.     

Alaskan peony farms are part of a resurgence of American flower farms that are popping up around the U.S. in all communities.  The desire for locally and American grown flowers is growing stronger, thanks in part to Certified American Grown Flowers and their Field to Vase Dinner Tour.  This tour, which travels around the country, highlights America’s most beautiful flower farms, and offers attendees the opportunity to immerse themselves in an evening of dining among flower fields, meeting and talking with the flower farmers and enjoying a slow food meal with other American grown flower enthusiasts.  It’s about celebrating a rebirth of American flower farms and celebrating a sense of place – of community.  

It was a powerful and beautiful thing to see so many seasoned and new peony farms attend the dinner - all for the love of peonies and for the appreciation that the world was taking notice and celebrating them.  It truly was a weekend of celebrating Beth Van Sandt & Kurt Weichland, of Scenic Place Peonies, as gracious hosts on their breathtaking peony farm but also celebrating Homer, Alaska – now the “City of Peonies.” According to the Homer Chamber of Commerce website there are over 25 peony farms in Homer that are successfully selling their product at farmers markets, to all 50 states and overseas.  From Homer to the North Pole there are over 100 peony farms in the state of Alaska.  Having the Field to Vase Dinner come to Alaska was the perfect opportunity for their movement to shine on the national stage.  

When Kasey Cronquist, the CEO & administrator of American Grown Flowers and creative behind the Field to Vase dinners, called to ask me if I was interested in being the featured floral designer for the Alaskan dinner there was a moment when I couldn’t discern if he was really asking me or it was a dream.  I couldn’t believe he was offering me another unbelievable opportunity to be a part of the larger picture and help inspire others for change.  I am incredibly grateful that my growing dedication to sourcing and designing with local and American grown flowers has led me to these moments of working alongside dedicated, hard working, like-minded people in the most awe-inspiring locations.  

Scenic Place Peonies' farm sits high above downtown Homer overlooking Kachemak Bay with the most incredible, breathtaking view of mountains and glaciers. 

Scenic Place Peonies' farm sits high above downtown Homer overlooking Kachemak Bay with the most incredible, breathtaking view of mountains and glaciers. 

Long days of sunlight provide evenings with a perpetual glow.  I could never grow tired of this view.  This is close to sunset around 11:30 pm looking out from Scenic Place Peonies' farm. 

Long days of sunlight provide evenings with a perpetual glow.  I could never grow tired of this view.  This is close to sunset around 11:30 pm looking out from Scenic Place Peonies' farm. 

With Beth Van Sandt in her peony fields alongside Lisa Thorne of Thorne & Thistle who was there that week helping Beth & Kurt and also part of the design team. 

With Beth Van Sandt in her peony fields alongside Lisa Thorne of Thorne & Thistle who was there that week helping Beth & Kurt and also part of the design team. 

Kasey Cronquist and me in the lower peony field at Scenic Place Peonies.  To walk in a lush peony field like this was a magical experience. 

Kasey Cronquist and me in the lower peony field at Scenic Place Peonies.  To walk in a lush peony field like this was a magical experience. 

If the sun was out it was time to harvest.  With Beth and Debra Prinzing of SlowFlowers who was there to attend the dinner and also provided great support and design help throughout the week. 

If the sun was out it was time to harvest.  With Beth and Debra Prinzing of SlowFlowers who was there to attend the dinner and also provided great support and design help throughout the week. 

The size of the Alaskan peonies at Scenic Place Peonies was incredible!  Some varieties were three times the size of peonies that grow in the lower 48. 

The size of the Alaskan peonies at Scenic Place Peonies was incredible!  Some varieties were three times the size of peonies that grow in the lower 48. 

She was my favorite for sure!  This was Solange and I think she stole the hearts of all of us! Apart from her size and her unending layers of petals her scent was intoxicating.  

She was my favorite for sure!  This was Solange and I think she stole the hearts of all of us! Apart from her size and her unending layers of petals her scent was intoxicating.  

So happy to have finally met Rita Jo Schultz (and her husband, Leroy) of Alaska Perfect Peony.  This was the first peony farm that I bought from in 2014.  What a beautiful farm they have!

So happy to have finally met Rita Jo Schultz (and her husband, Leroy) of Alaska Perfect Peony.  This was the first peony farm that I bought from in 2014.  What a beautiful farm they have!

Meeting Michelle LaFriniere of Chilly Root Peony Farm was such a treat after corresponding for the last few years and seeing the beautiful farm where I bought some of my peonies from summers past. 

Meeting Michelle LaFriniere of Chilly Root Peony Farm was such a treat after corresponding for the last few years and seeing the beautiful farm where I bought some of my peonies from summers past. 

These two!! I just adore them!  Beth Van Sandt & Kurt Weichhand are two of the hardest working people I know!  I'm beyond grateful that they welcomed me on their gorgeous peony farm for a week and gave me a one-of-a-kind experience that I will never forget! 

These two!! I just adore them!  Beth Van Sandt & Kurt Weichhand are two of the hardest working people I know!  I'm beyond grateful that they welcomed me on their gorgeous peony farm for a week and gave me a one-of-a-kind experience that I will never forget!