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Power of peonies

Benson mom used flowers to reclaim her land

Presented with an annoying and potentially dangerous problem, Jill Stevens tried a practical solution that worked out beautifully.

When Jill and Kevin Stevens moved to Benson in the fall of 1993, they were presented with a problem.  The property where their house sits is adjacent to a large field, separated by a dirt lane.  Cars would drag race on this dirt lane, often using the Stevens’ back yard as a place to spin out and do doughnuts.  This was a year-round occurrence, as snowmobiles did this during the winter months, often coming to within a few feet of the house.

This type of behavior was more than an annoyance as it presented a real danger to the Stevens’ three young children, ages 3, 6, and 7.

Jill’s solution?  “I thought if I grew a line of peonies I could reclaim the land.”  What inspired Stevens to this novel solution?  Why peonies?  Stevens remembered that, “My grandma did this to deter my grandfather from coming into the yard with the tractor.” If it worked for grandma Hannah, perhaps it would work for her.

And so began a lifelong love of peonies that transformed a once overgrown lot full of nothing but tall grass, tire tracks and scruff marks into a beautiful garden comprised of nearly 700 different peonies in over 641 different varieties, including Golden Wheel, Chocolate Chip, Paul Bunyan, Watermelon Wine, Summer Glow, Constance Spry, Garden Glory, Strawberry Charm, Lois Kelsey, Pink Jazz, Angel Cheeks, Crinkled White, and so many more.

Not only is this remarkable in its own right, but even more so when you consider that when Stevens started her peony perimeter, she thought that there were just three different peony varieties.

In the last two decades, Stevens has learned a lot about peonies.  In fact, there are over 10,000 peony varieties, with just 3,000 of them named.

Peonies bloom in the spring.  This year, the earliest peony to bloom occurred on May 26, and the earliest bloom she has ever had was on April 15.  With so many varieties,  Stevens is able to enjoy seven to eight weeks of color filling her garden.

Stevens enjoys daily walks in her garden, greeting her newest arrivals with a warm greeting and a smile, naming each variety, “This is Sophie.  She’s brand new today.”    “This is Patricia Hanratty, a Japanese variety.  It’s her first year.”  “Here’s Don Richardson.  It’s his first day.”

With so many varieties, how does she keep up with all of the new arrivals, much less the old friends?   Every plant is marked at its base with a name, but in addition to this, Stevens constantly consults her ever-present chart, which includes much information, including what has been planted, when they have bloomed in the past, when they may be expected to bloom, and much more.  She has spent a lifetime compiling the statistics of this chart, and its well-worn pages are a testimony for the love of her craft.

This year especially, Stevens anticipates new discoveries as she walks in her garden.  Typically, she does not breed her plants, nor does she consider herself a breeder of peonies, saying, “My breeding knowledge is nonexistent.  Normally, I cut off the seed pod so they don’t breed.”  But this year, anticipating that the weather conditions wouldn’t be normal, “I let them go to seed in the hope that something different would happen.”

Her excitement at new discoveries is palpable as she spies a new arrival, exclaiming, “Wow!”  An unexpected surprise, a new discover; she is obviously delighted by it.  It looks like a Peppermint Stick, but it’s not.

Her enthusiasm is contagious.  Continuing around her garden with a visitor, she can’t help but share her knowledge, and her love for her peonies, “This is Coral Magic.  Some years it has white petals.  Random white petals.  See?”  “This is Sedona.  Sedona is new in the peony world.  This is really exciting!”

Spotting a Lois Kelsey, she can’t contain her joy, saying, “There are some fun things happening here!”  Further on, she points out a beautiful coral- colored peony, saying, “That’s Coral Charm.  This is the one people stop and look at.  Coral is a kind of color that people are attracted to.”

Stevens’ favorite white peony is Crinkled White, which is a peony breeder’s favorite due to it being so fertile.  She also likes Henry Bockstoce, saying, “I like it because it’s so nice and red and full.”  Pointing out a smaller peony, she says, “This is Orange Glory.  I really like it.  It’s kind of a smaller flower, but it’s nice.”

Stevens pauses to point out two peonies near each other – Peppermint Stick, which has a cactus form, with crinkly petals and Miss Mary.  She’s not sure, but she thinks that these two flowers have produced another variety.  Her eyes twinkle as she says, “The one that I’m really excited about could possibly be from Miss Mary and Peppermint Stick.  Since my granddaughter is named Mary Ann, I’m going to call it, Miss Mary Ann.”

Upon settling on their property all those years ago, Stevens discovered a peony in residence.  She has since divided this original peony into 14 different plants, and they can be seen in the garden, even after all these years.

“They can live for a long, long time.”  Peonies can live over 100 years, and the older they get, the deeper their root system.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to transplant them while they’re still young, say six to 10 years old.  Stevens has become adept at transplanting the peonies when she has need to, confessing, “I tend to plant them too close together and too close to trees.”

Stevens usually plants the peonies in the fall.  This year she plans to plant an additional 19 peonies, but she usually plants 30.  Much time is spent planning not only what to plant, but where to plant.

She spends a lot of time watering her new peonies in the morning and pulling weeds before heading out to perform her duties as a rural mail carrier. In addition to her constant planning and record keeping of the garden, she enjoys spending as much time as possible in the garden, as it helps her to relax.

Stevens’ husband, Kevin, “Is very supportive,” and often helps her in the garden.  “If he can drive something, he’s there.  He likes to till the ground for me.”  Following the summer storm of June 2013, Kevin was also involved in repairing the wooden fence that surrounds the garden, as well as helping to remove several damaged trees.

In addition to the flowers, many others enjoy the fruits of Stevens’ labors.   Passing a four-hive bee box nestled on the property, she says, “We’re foster parents for some bees.  It started out as just a house, and now we have a full condo.”  She continues, “Six deer frequent my yard as well as countless bunnies.”

Her grown children, daughters Kajda and Kajsey, and son, Jackson, are also supportive, even though they weren’t that interested when they were younger, often offering the opinion that “Mom’s the crazy peony lady.”

Now that the children have grown up and moved out of the house, they are expressing interest in their mom’s peonies.

Four years ago, Stevens became a certified Master Gardener. To earn this honor, she obtained 48 hours of home horticulture education through the University of Minnesota Extension’s Master Gardener program, an internationally recognized program. During her first year as a Master Gardener, Stevens was required to volunteer 50 hours, and to volunteer for 25 hours in subsequent years.  Additionally, Master Gardeners participate in annual continuing education to sharpen their gardening skills.

“The Master Gardener program is a volunteer program.  But it’s a very important volunteer program,” says Swift County Extension office manager Casey Olson.

Currently, there are seven active Master Gardeners in Swift County.  During the summer months, it is not at all uncommon for the extension office to receive five or more telephone calls to which one of these Master Gardeners will respond.  “The calls can range from anything to plants, to birds, to entomology, to trees and gardening.  There are so many aspects to the Master Gardeners program,” said Olson.

When asked why she became a Master Gardener, Stevens responded, “I enjoy guiding people in their gardening interests.”  It is obvious to anyone taking the time to visit her garden that Stevens enjoys sharing her knowledge with others, and is a valuable asset to her community.

It took the Stevens family about five years, several rows of peonies, a row of trees, and a wooden fence to establish their garden spot and stop people from driving in their yard.  But it has taken a lifetime of patience and care to produce such a lovely garden so full of love and joy.

Walking through Stevens’ garden, it’s hard to believe that this space was once just high grass. Now it is full of color in an assortment of trees and flowers, each seeming to radiate the care that has so obviously been given each of them. She no longer has to worry about people driving in her yard, but in the spring it’s not at all unusual to see a train of cars slowly cruising past her yard, taking in the beauty of the earth.

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