The Peony Pro: Caledon Hills Peony Farm
Looking for a rare peony variety? Diana Hillman’s got you covered with rootstock from North America and the Netherlands.
While some folks curl up with a tablet to ogle baby pandas or adorable kittens, Diana Hillman loves to scroll through close-ups of peony faces: ethereal pale pinks crowded with wrinkled petals, arresting papery apricots and, her favourite, peppy corals.
An award-winning painter and enthusiastic supporter of the local art scene, Diana has for decades tended her own prolific peony beds at Silver Creek, the expansive Caledon farm she shares with her husband, retired news producer Tony Hillman. At the same time, she has participated in local garden clubs long enough to know she isn’t alone in her penchant for the blousy, fragrant blooms she has loved since childhood. So when one of the fields behind her storybook white farmhouse beckoned, Caledon Hills Peony Farm was born. (Diana and a friend came up with the idea for the peony business a couple of years ago, but by the end of 2018, the project had taken on a life of its own and Diana took over its management.)
On a recent February morning at the edge of that field, now filled with rows of dormant peony plants and professional sprinklers dusted with snow, Diana says she has two and a half to three acres under cultivation. “With room for more,” she adds, a glint in her eye.
First introduced into Europe from China in the mid-18th century, the peony has been a source of delight to westerners ever since, especially in the northern hemisphere, where they thrive, says Diana. She likes to quote James Kelway, the pioneering English grower, who said about peonies: “They are tough as a Scotch thistle, as hardy as paving stones and as full of vigour as a common marigold.”
Diana’s current business model involves the online sale of the divided peony rootstock in the fall, the best season to plant them. She mails them to buyers, or customers can visit the farm in October for pickup. Until her own young plants mature enough to divide, she’ll continue selling to others the same stock she buys from top suppliers in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands.
This year, Diana plans to add 22 new varieties, bringing the total to 130. And this fall, she’ll offer about 100 of those for sale online. Included will be many Itoh varieties, crosses between the sturdy tree peony and the herbaceous variety that droops not long after it provides armfuls of fragrant blooms. Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh created the hybrids in the late 1940s, and until 15 years ago their roots sometimes sold for $500. The most expensive beauties on the Caledon Hills website are $95 and include the cheerful yellow ‘Garden Treasure’ with its green, cream and pink centre, and the ‘Julia Rose’ which starts in early summer as a soft cherry pink, then fades to a salmon tone and finishes the season in peaches and cream.
Diana and her daughter, Tessa Angus, have designed the Caledon Hills Peony Farm website with other peony addicts in mind: stunning photos, insider planting tips and research gleaned from the Canadian Peony Association and the American Peony Society. If a peony variety has the Award of Landscape Merit by the American Peony Society, for instance, that handy shorthand says it has a reliable track record and will stand up without needing to be propped by hoops or supports. “I read everything I can find and I try to give the most accurate information possible,” says Diana. “It’s fun if you’re an obsessive sort of person.”
With an eye to how other flower farmers scale their businesses, Diana keenly follows developments in the industry. She has already received her first shipment of Floret Farm seed packets, and she keeps an eye on a New Jersey outfit cheekily called Peony Envy. She may one day sell cut peonies, and she’s considering opening to the public during the four- to five-week summer period when peonies bloom. It will be 2020, however, before she’s ready to sell her own rootstock – but patience is built into her vision. “It’s a long game,” she says dryly.