A Passion for Peonies – A Farm Visit

On Saturday, the alarm rang just before 6am. There was heavy fog hanging over our small village but the sun was already up. We had a three hour drive into Belgium ahead of us. Across Flanders fields, around Gent, over Brussels, finally arriving at our destination, Nieuwerkerken in the far East of Belgium. This is pear growing country with hundreds of farms growing rows and rows of beautifully manicured, espaliered pear trees. In fact, almost everything in this area of Belgium is well kempt and flourishing. Amongst the geometric patchwork of fruit trees lies a small peony farm named Graefswinning. In Spring it is a sparkling jewel in a green land.

A few years ago I met Jeaninne Lemmens at the autumn Beervelde garden days. I had almost lunged at her in excitement having never met a peony grower before and being so excited to see so many peony varieties before my eyes. Jeaninne is a lovely, gentle, knowledgable woman with a deep passion for peonies. She is a board member of the American Peony Society which for more than a century has strived to promote and foster the cultivation of peonies as a garden and landscape plant. She is the only European member of the board.

She and her husband bought their farm in 2010. It was already planted with production pear trees. She jokes that the locals thought she was crazy pulling out pear trees to plant peonies. The farm still produces pears, mostly Conference pear, however it is the peonies that give her the greatest pleasure.

Jeaninne had an open day last weekend, timed to allow guests the opportunity to experience thousands of peonies in full bloom. The day was hot and the sun’s penetrating light forced the flower heads to reflect intense colour and vibrance, unlike anything I have seen before. The reds vibrated in the eye and the delicate, paper thin white petals almost camouflaged into the bright white light.

Around the old brick farm buildings, outside of the peony fields, grows an enormous hedge row of pine and on the ground, wild chamomile. In the humid air, the pine, chamomile, peony and warming earth formed an ancient, evocative perfume. Standing amongst the peony rows, swaying gently in that aromatic soup, I was ushered through moments in human memory. A Japanese woman dressed in a kimono bows down slowly towards the blooming peony to breath in its sweet and tender scent. An old Chinese man, with an older hand made tool pressed against his palm, digs in the fresh earth searching gently for the root. Its potion will stave off his beloved wife’s rheumatism.

In home gardens, peonies are generally planted and left undisturbed. They can be an incredibly long living plant, sometimes up to and over fifty years. When cultivated, herbaceous and Itoh peonies are reproduced by dividing the root while tree peonies are grafted. For the purposes of multiplication, Jeaninne divides her plants every three years. So, if a grower like Jeaninne starts with a new variety and only a small number of plants, there can be a significant time investment before they can start selling plants to the public. Jeaninne grows three hundred varieties but makes one hundred of these available in her store. Availability, taste and fashion determine those select one hundred. The farm also produces cutting flowers which are sold at the flower auction Veiling Rhein Maas in Germany, at garden shows and on the farm.

Due to her strong relationships with growers in the United States, many of her plants are sourced from hybridizers there. A number of these peonies are rare in Europe, some exclusively grown and nurtured by her. Red Grace, pictured in the last two images of this post is one of these, hybridized by Lyman D. Glasscock from Elmwood, Illinois in the US. Jeaninne now sells it as plants and cut flowers. This peony has an enormous flower head filled with hundreds of claret red petals that burst from the center in an explosion of colour and texture, it stands out amongst the other flowers.

Peonies have been cultivated for centuries, with known sources dating back 4000 years. Used medicinally in Asia, the peony was a respected and important ingredient to healers and apothecaries. All parts of the plant were used to create tinctures, oils and lotions and were administered for treating a range of ailments: gout, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems, skin problems, stomach upset, migraines, chronic fatigue and many others. Today, early research shows promise in using chemicals and substances derived from the peony plant in the treatment of muscle cramps and rheumatoid arthritis. But despite its impressive healing powers, it is our undeniable fascination with the peony’s exquisite beauty that has bound its fate. It now has an established and enduring place in horticulture and in our homes and gardens.

The peony has been adored by artists, writers and poets across cultures. Its finest portraits I believe are in the work of Japanese Ukiyo-e masters who eternalised their elegant, evocative and romantic nature. The Dutch painters of the Golden Age expressed their voluptuous, rich and opulent nature while at the same time documenting and symbolising the wealth, exploration and trade that the peonies represented. Many peonies were after all, exotic flowers from the East. In France, Renoir and Manet presented an impression of the peony in quiet, peaceful daily life, capturing our intimate and enduring love affair with this remarkable flower.

As a gardener, visiting the peony farm and seeing each variety in person allows you to experience their true character. It is an invaluable way of choosing suitable types for your own garden. Although peonies only have a short flowering period of two to three weeks, you can extend the bloom by having a range of very early to very late flowering varieties and enjoy peonies for six to eight weeks. You can plant spring bulbs amongst your peonies which will flower as the peony foliage begins to emerge. Mixed perennials like the Bearded Iris are a beautiful companion flowering plant as are alliums and poppies. They flower at the same time and later than peonies. Flowering woody shrubs like azalea or flowering trees like dogwood, magnolia and cherry are exquisite when planted behind and create a luscious backdrop.

The great thing about peonies as decorative cut flowers, is that they are absolutely at home all on their own. There is no need to source a bouquet rich in variety or complicate the spontaneity of bringing flowers into your home. Their sublime range of shades and tones and similar foliage across varieties means that you can cut flowers from different plants, form a bouquet and pop them in a vessel. They are an impeccably elegant and evocative statement and certainly herald the arrival of spring in a glorious fashion. I scatter large bouquets all over the house, on central tables, side tables, the dressing table and on the dining table when we are not dining. I can’t get enough of them. Depending on the mood of your interior, the range of peony colours allow for the expression of stately elegance in the whites, romantic whimsy in the light pinks, joy in the magentas and passion in the darker reds.

The peonies photographed are as follows: 1st & 2nd: Miss America. 3rd: Circus-Circus. 6th, 7th & 8th: Coral Sunset. 9th: Soft Salmon Joy. 11th & 12th: Ellen Cowley. 13th & 14th: Buckeye Belle. 15th & 16th: Red Grace.

Beervelde, Belgium: Les Journées des Plantes – The Garden Days – De Tuindagen – Die Gartentage

It feels as if we’ve waited so long for it, but last weekend, it was hot! A searing, burning sun carrying bright sparkling light shone upon us all here in Western Europe. Happily, it also marked the weekend of the greatly anticipated Beervelde Garden Days, an utterly magnificent bi-annual outdoor garden and lifestyle event held in May and October. The sun, heat and very merry public made it all the more sublime. The Beervelde Garden Days are held in privately owned Beervelde Parc, located 18 kilometers East of Gent, Belgium. The event is impeccably curated and hosted by Count Renaud and Countess Valérie de Kerchove de Denterghem who open their home, for three wonderful days. Beervelde Parc is 25 glorious hectares of woodland, expansive lush meadows, flower gardens and a grand lake fed by a river. During the fair you are free to roam the grounds, with all of the buildings, including the ground floor of the stately villa and the coach house, being used by merchants. This Spring there were more than 220 specialist growers, producers, makers and manufacturers with an incredibly diverse array of superb quality produce and crafted product. We enjoyed browsing all of the plant and flower stalls, my favourites are always the peony and bulb growers. I’ve never seen so many different varieties of Iris. We also tasted many new things, the standout being a beautiful ice cream made from horse milk. Incredibly light and smooth and full of flavour. It was a very pleasant surprise.

The coach house is a complex of buildings that surround a courtyard with a large fountain. The buildings are made of red brick with subtle architectural details and have a very healthy vine sprawling across the facade. The stables have beautiful original wooden doors and a stone floor where a couple of antique dealers and a jewellery maker were installed. They were surprisingly intimate rooms and had a lovely feel. Here you will also find the barn and schoolhouse where antique dealer Anniek De Vlieger was selling exquisite antique earthenware vessels from Morroco originally used for storing water, oil and grain; large black marble plates from India and various other pots, bowls and planters from ancient Asia. Another happy find, nestled in the arched entryway to the coach house was Kopersporen, sellers of beautiful bronze garden tools made by PKS BRONZE of Austria. Shiny and new they are just lovely but their aged patina and wooden handles are really what makes them beautiful. The tools they had for testing were delightful and so very well made.

I bought myself a rose from Casteels Rozen. I am partial to double roses and this cupped, double rose called ‘Mary Ann’ is impressive in colour and petal count with a strong, delightfully sweet scent.

We also had the pleasure of meeting artist Christophe Annys. He works primarily with stone but also plaster and molding. I think his stone sculptures are wonderful. Textured, gritty and evocative. On this day however, he was demonstrating his skill in stone letter carving which he does under the business name Letterbeeld. His work is exact with no room for error. I loved that as I moved my way around the garden I could still hear his chisel sounding chink, chink, chink.

At the end of walled vegetable garden were Wenceslaus Mertens and Hilbrand De Vuyst from Reizend Bakhuis who make wood fired ovens. The two friends build their ovens using hand made bricks, clay, straw and tree branches. They use an exceptionally clever traditional technique of forming a skeleton made from woven tree branches that allow the oven to expand and contract during heating and cooling. We had a lovely long conversation about how the ovens were constructed and built to last and last. What astounded me was that they often build the oven inside a stand alone building designed as a bake house where all bread preparation, proofing and baking occurs. The installation of such a bake house constitutes a serious investment in wood fired baking and families do so as a multi-generational investment. Reizend Bakhuis reflect this attitude and ideal by providing a three generation warranty on their ovens. I was so glad to hear that this way of living and cooking is alive and well in Europe.

With his wares spread out over three enormous tables, and a view of the villa across a splendid meadow, we met Dirk Mortier and his wooden boards. Spectacular, solid, working chopping or cheese boards. At around 5cm or 2 inches thick, they appear built to withstand warping and hard work. He uses a range of wood types including French oak, American oak, European beech, European ash, plum and walnut and are made by himself, one by one, in his atelier in Belgium. You can see by the images above that these are boards with gravitas! He has a wonderful sense of celebration and feast with oversized styles that would require at least two people to carry when laden with gorgeous food. I can imagine a wonderful, characteristic grazing table at a family feast utilising different sizes, layered in levels creating a dramatic presentation.

Amongst the peony and rose sellers were master basket weavers Philippe Guérinel from France and Bruno Vloeberghs from Belgium. Both are masters in different weaving techniques and they gave us a wonderful tutorial in how their basket weaving styles differ. Philippe Guérinel forms baskets using an artful technique known as Périgord, from the Dordogne region of France. The basket is woven free form in a spiral structure which produces a very light but very strong basket. It appears from the range of baskets he had on display that the possibilities for shape are vast. He is able to form very flat, open, plate like baskets but also very curved and deep forms. I was captivated. They truly are beautiful objects. It takes great skill to produce a result such as this, a skill developed through a life-time of dedication and practice. You can see more of his baskets here.

Alpacas are fantastic animals, and like sheep, they can produce a wonderful fibre for making garments, accessories, blankets and other home textiles. We met the owners of Ecosnooze who bought along their alpacas for the show. Alpaca as a fibre has many interesting natural characteristics which make it an intriguing choice for clothing and bedding. Firstly it is free of lanolin which as I understand it, is the oil that gives sheep fleece its characteristic smell. It was expressed to us that a great deal of industrial cleaning and processing is required to remove the lanolin from the wool to ready it for the consumer, an unnecessary step in the processing of Alpaca. All protein fibres, meaning hair and wool, have micro scales on the surface of the fibre. These scales, depending on their size and the coarseness of the fibre can create an itchy sensation upon contact with the skin. Alpaca is apparently a somewhat smoother fibre which reduces the itchiness dramatically. Also, Alpacas over hundreds of years of evolution have developed a partially hollow fibre that keeps them warmer in cold climates and cooler in the warmer weather. It apparently also makes the fibre lighter in weight. But the fact that most surprised me is illustrated on the colour card above. Those shades are the natural colours of their alpacas, they don’t dye or colour their fleece. This results in a beautiful, soft palette of garments, also illustrated above. From chocolate brown to tan, cream and blue grey, they are absolutely lovely shades. The owner told us that when each alpaca is born the first question they ask is “boy or girl?” And, then immediately “what colour?”

All in all, we had a wonderful time at the Spring Beervelde Garden Days. The thing that stood out to me most of all was the overwhelming, majestic passion that all of the makers and producers had. They truly love what they do and enjoy expressing that through conversation. Great skill, knowledge and know how was demonstrated at every stall and tent and quality was evident throughout. It was a highly pleasurable weekend and I look forward to the Autumn event.

The International Orchid Exhibition at the Abbaye de Vaucelles

The Abbaye de Vaucelles in the Haut-Escaut valley is a Cistercian abbey. It has stood since 1132 when the foundation stone was laid and according to their website, in the 13th Century it had the biggest Cistercian church in Europe, bigger than the Notre Dame in Paris. The abbey, as it stands today, consists of two buildings: the Abbot’s palace and the Monks’ wing. The latter has a number of magnificent rooms one of which is the Salle de Moines, the Monks’ hall, where special events are held. Two rows of five stone columns rise into arches and form a characteristic stone vault. The architecture is dramatic and majestic with very little ornamentation and a quiet simple palette that suits a modern sensibility towards interior spaces, providing a magnificent venue for cultural and artistic events. Happily, Google has a virtual tour of the Salle de Moines where you can get a sense of the room.

This weekend past we visited the Abbey to see the 26th International Orchid Exhibition, XXVIème Exposition Internationale d’Orchidées. The mornings are fresh at the moment, tip-toe on the spot kind of fresh. The pebble stone driveway leading up to the abbey was lined with bulb and plant sellers selling roses, agapanthuses, peonies, anemones and giant amaryllises, amongst an endless list of exquisite flowers and bulbs ready for planting. Although irresistable, the cold kept us from lingering too long, it was still early.
The doorway to the Salle de Moines is unassuming and looks rather more like a service entrance but what a deception it is. We entered center of the columns to a stunning symmetrical view and in a heart beat became immediately cognizant of our other senses. The warmth needed for the delicate plants warmed our cold faces and an all-encompassing, uplifting smell of orchid flowers, new leaves, bark and fresh earth transported us to a tropical haven. It was a true sensory delight.

Growers from all over the world displayed magnificent, rare and endangered orchids in what could not have been a more appropriate space for these flowers. The sun shone all morning, its light spilling in from the high windows of the abbey illuminated every orchid brilliantly. As you can imagine, the environment commanded a sense of veneration that not a single visitor would have missed.

If you do intend to visit in the future, there was an entire room dedicated to orchid sellers with many of the orchid varieties on display available for purchase. I’ve happily discovered a handful of excellent growers in France and Belgium.

On the CROP linen Facebook page, we have an album of more than 30 images from the exhibition.

The orchids photographed are as follows:
1st: Aerangis Rhodosticta
2nd: Coelogyne Lentiginosa
3rd: Rhyncholaeliocattleya Pamela Finney ‘Pink Beauty’
4th: Cymbidium Mystique ‘Los Osos’
5th & 6th: Unfortunately the final orchid was not labelled.

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