Perennial peony blooms provide a splash of late spring color to gardens across America. For Karen and Ed Goodrich, though, peonies also are a way to supplement their income at their rural southwest Oregon home in deer country.

As “extreme gardeners”—their words—Ed and Karen have been adding plants to their 40 rural acres for decades. But it was in 1998 that they thought to try their hand at selling some of the fruits of their labors. The impetus came from Karen’s work at a local freeze-dried flower company.

“Once a year the owners would buy expensive peony stems and more than a quarter of them wouldn’t open,” said Karen. “We’d have to put them in water and wait for them to open before we could freeze-dry them.”

Still, not all of them opened. So Karen began selling her boss the fully opened peonies from her own garden that were ready for drying.

Red Charmer Peony

When laying out the display garden, Karen and Ed plant most of their peonies in the ground, like ‘Red Charm’ shown here. They also used raised beds.

Buck Canyon Beginnings

Growing and now selling peonies proved to be the Goodrich’s entry into the small business world, and peonies were a good fit for their gardening interests and their desire to grow something that was deer resistant—which is a particular necessity since they live in a deer-filled area called Buck Canyon. It was just natural, then, to name their business Buck Canyon Gardens.

“We didn’t want to put up a lot of fences,” Ed explained. And deer don’t care for peonies. But growing a business wasn’t as simple as growing more plants. They needed a market niche and initially thought they’d grow peonies for the cut flower market. That, however, posed challenges.

“There were refrigeration issues—you really need a walk-in cooler,” Karen said. So, with her background in dried flowers, she opted to try that angle instead. “Peonies dry wonderfully with a freeze dryer,” she explained. “At one point we had hundreds hanging (and air drying) in the garage.”

But standard dried peonies and even dried peonies with a long-lasting wax coating, known as Victorian waxed flowers, failed to find enough buyers.

Plant Profit

“People would rather buy a plant,” Karen explained. So that is where they focused their efforts. To build their inventory, they first added the kinds of peonies that characterized what they loved about the flamboyant flowers. They also immersed themselves in research.

“The next year we added several other varieties and started going to peony society meetings and seeking the newest kids on the block,” Karen said. “It was very exciting, and very expensive.”

They quickly learned that some of the newest types of peonies can sell for hundreds of dollars per tuber. Today, they grow more than 100 varieties of peonies and have expanded their sales garden to include about 50 different iris varieties as well.

“Iris are so hardy and they are a great companion plant to the peony because they bloom at the same time,” she said. And like the peony, iris provide a learning experience to gardeners. “They will say ‘oh, I have iris,’ and they usually have just the purple iris,” Karen said. But it’s a different story when they see pink, apricot, burgundy and even near-black iris blooms.

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Sunrise Elegy Peonies

Sunrise Elegy Peony

Marketing Moves

For the Goodrich’s, it wasn’t just deciding which plants to sell. They also had to design a display garden that would be efficient to care for. Ed learned about plastic mulches and drip watering systems to ensure proper irrigation without harming the flowers.

“There’s no overhead watering,” Karen said, explaining that such sprinklers easily damage the blooms. Drip irrigation also “puts water right where you want it.”

While they try to grow the peonies efficiently, Karen also designed the 1-acre display garden to create a pleasing aesthetic. “That’s a big part of our endeavor,” she said.

It was Ed’s job to develop a website for their new business to showcase the plants as well as serve as a sales portal. Ed’s marketing experience also proved invaluable when the Goodrich’s decided to hold an open house to display their expanding garden to the public.

“The more peonies that we planted, the more beautiful the garden became so we decided to have a show,” Karen recalled. “It was more like opening up our personal garden.”

The rural location of Buck Canyon Gardens, however, was a concern.

“I thought, ‘Is anybody going to come all the way out here?’” Karen said.

But come they did, and as word got out, groups such as an area camera club, garden clubs and even busloads of retirement home residents started to visit the garden.

The annual Peony & Iris Show, now in its 14th year and held the last three weekends in May, has proved to be very popular, drawing in peony fans from throughout the region.

“It was amazing during the first couple of shows,” Karen said about the experience, “People were amazed and saying things like ‘my grandmother had peonies,’ or ‘my mother had peonies.’ Or ‘we used to put peonies at the cemetery.’”

Family Effort

Family is important to the Buck Canyon enterprise, and Ed and Karen’s adult children pitch in during the hectic show days and help the business create a presence on the internet.

“Our son Jeremy has done e-books for years and he said, ‘Dad, you need an e-book,’” explained Ed. “So now we have an e-book titled Peony Pictorial.”

The book, which provides basic information on peony care along with gorgeous photos, is available as a Kindle book from Amazon. They’re currently working on a revision to include more information on the hybrids as well as more detailed information on specific varieties. The couple’s oldest daughter, Angie, a talented photographer, also helped by developing a Facebook page for the business.

The Goodrich’s are pleased that they’re able to do what they love. “When you do something that you like to do,” Ed said, “it’s always a plus.” For more information, visit buckcanyon.com

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here

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