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A priest and his peonies

The priesthood was Father Jack Nordick’s calling, but it is not the only avenue he felt called to. As a young boy who attended boarding school he was one of the rare specimens that grew plants on the windowsill of his boarding school room at a very young age. The early attention to what a plant might need to thrive has become fine tuned over the years for this priest, farmer, and plant lover. Father Nordick is the pastor for the two southern Minnesota parishes of St. Mary’s in Cottonwood and St. Clotilde in Green Valley, with his office and residence in Cottonwood. Father Nordick’s second residence is on the farm which originally belonged to his grandmother, which is located northwest of Bellingham.  His love of peonies may have been subconsciously planted by his grandmother.

“Grandma always had the old reliable peonies, the purple/lavender-colored ones, and I still have some of those plants. They are the plants that got me looking into the idea of other colors,” said Father Nordick. “Color is not the only thing that has changed in the peony fields over the years. Texture, stamina, shape and color of foliage and fragrance are all characteristics that have been altered over time. Many roses lost their wonderful fragrance when growers altered them to achieve more desirable characteristics. That is something we certainly do not want to have happen with the peonies.”

“When I need more room for peonies I pick a spot, work up the pasture land I want to use, and I usually plant a large vegetable garden in it in the spring. With the growing of vegetables and tilling throughout the summer months the ground is broken up and ready for peonies by the fall. Of course there is always the need to fence it off from the deer and put up an electric fence to keep the cows and calves out of it. It is nice the deer do not like the taste of peonies, but they do a great deal of damage walking on the plants,” said Father Nordick. The number of deer that visit the peonyfields is obvious by the tracks that are visible down the driveway and on every tilled row of flowers. “I try to eliminate damage the deer cause with the placement of metal electric fence posts by nearly every plant and then I put an empty pop can upside down on the post. It doesn’t frighten the deer or anything like that, but it makes it impossible for them to walk over the top of the plants. I also use the post and cans as a way to mark locations of certain plants I want to remember. I may want to move them in the fall or whatever else they may need done. So I spray the pop can with usually orange paint and then the plants are easy to find. Each plant also has a metal tag attached to the post with its name, but the painted cans are much easier to spot. If I didn’t mark them in some way by fall it would be very time consuming to remember and locate special plants,” said Father Nordick.

He has been working with yellow peonies and has some 30 yellow plants. One of the things he has learned is: Although his farm has rich, black soil, some of the yellow peonies did not begin to thrive until he moved them to Cottonwood, where they highlight the perennial garden of St. Mary’s. He was somewhat surprised by the discovery, but many gardens have different ecosystems within them, and most plants may benefit from being moved just a short distance within the garden.

“I have belonged to the

American Peony Society for years and have learned a great deal. I have no formal horticulture education, just what I have learned from reading, the Internet and attending different events. For instance, every year the society selects which peonies will receive awards, and many growers look at the society’s standards to determine which plants they will spend their money on. For instance, the society is looking for a bush that will not only look nice when blooming but will hold up all summer. They also want a bush that will remain standing after a hard rain. Many bushes are as flat as a pancake after a rain, and the peonies that flatten out are called carpet peonies. Landscapers in particular want a bush they can add that will give color but will not be laying down at any time. Another standard they are looking at it scent. Like the roses, peonies have lost their smell through the different propagations; some may have a little smell, some no smell and some may smell awful, so a sweet peony fragrance is a standard. Also, a plant that will grow without the use of chemicals is very desirable,” said Father Nordick.

“The old peonies were bred for shows and for cut flowers. Buds were selected and then the buds growing on the stem on either side of that bud were cut off so all the energy would go into producing a beautiful blossom. Now peonies are being used for other things, like landscaping, so other characteristics are important. Peonies can be fickle about many things such as the weather. Some will bloom every year, where others, if the weather isn’t perfect, may only bloom heavily every other year or even every third year. Just like the yellow ones I moved to Cottonwood. For whatever reason, they are happier in that location. The old wives tale about ants helping peonies to open by eating the wax off the buds is just that, an old wives tale. They used to say if you didn’t have ants your peonies wouldn’t open. Actually ,ants are there just because they love to eat what we call the honey dew, which the buds give off before opening. If you have buds that aren’t opening it would be because of disease, not the lack of ants. Peonies are not very susceptible to disease but can be affected by botrytis which is a natural spore. It will cause the top petals of a bud to turn black and travel about 3 inches down the stem. If this happens, the affected stem should be trimmed off below the blackened part and disposed off. If the plant is blackened further than that it is pretty much hopeless, and you may as well dig it up. Botrytis is the same natural spore that causes apples to rot once they fall off the tree and hit the ground. “It is just a natural occurrence,” said Father Nordick.

“Peonies are very old plants, which speak to their hardiness; they go back over a million years. The Chinese worked very hard to cultivate them. In 1,000 B.C. these were originally the tree peonies. Plants have been recorded to be over 100 years old with very little care at all, with the perfect conditions they can be endless,” said Father Nordick. One growing hint is to not trim the bush down after flowering is complete; the bush returns nutrients to the root to ensure continued growth.

“I have been propagating peonies and have many registered with the American Peony Society and have more on trial. The plan is that these peonies will supplement my income upon retirement. It isn’t too difficult, you take the seed head when it is ripe, which is usually around mid August just as the pod begins to split, and you bring it indoors because if it opens outside it will burst, and seeds go flying. Let it dry until it is just a tad sticky. Then plant it, some will take a whole year to germinate. It may come up the second year and may bloom in three or four years. It should not be divided for 10 years. Not every one will be nice; It may be one in 1,000 that is a good one. Sometimes I let the bees do the work for me. It is very interesting when you walk through the fields. You will see a blooming plant with no bees on it, and another one will have bees buzzing all over it. I have some special little spots that are separated by other plants, like a hedge of roses or day lilies, so there is a little pocket, and I will put the two plants that I want to cross together in their own little outdoor room and let the bees work. It is not expensive to register a plant with the society, around $40, but out of 3,000 that are registered, it may be only half are good ones.”

The rustic farm place, which goes by the name of The Yellow Bank Peony Farm, is a plant haven, where lilies, day lilies, roses, rhubarb, raspberries and asparagus can be seen co-mingling with some blossoms in just about every corner of the yard. However, the fields are dominated by peonies, with a small tolerance for irises here and there. Visitors are welcome during the blooming season. Please contact Father Nordick prior to searching out the blooming spectacular.

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