Lush Life

Secrets of a local gardener’s favorite perennial—peonies

Seventeen years ago, Kim and Chris Heyn became the owners of a gracious 1924 home designed by Cameron Clark. The architect had lived in Greenfield Hill and had designed many homes in Fairfield and adjoining communities, as well as the Old Town Hall. He was known for the quality and character of his traditional houses, and these are still eagerly sought by Fairfield buyers. The Heyns, appreciative of the provenance of their vintage property, took a thoughtful approach to the task of bringing out the beauty of the home and its four-acre plot, spreading the improvements over time.

“The gardens had been neglected for quite a while,” says Kim, a devoted gardener. But as she surveyed the landscape, starting work on the land as well as the house, she uncovered some gems: a quantity of still productive antique peony plants.

“Peonies are my favorite perennial, and it was wonderful to find the old varieties on the property. These are amazing plants; they can live for centuries. So we’ve done what gardeners do. Each year since we’ve moved here, we’ve divided the peonies we found and planted them around the garden, along with others that we’ve purchased.”

The Heyns amplified this treasure trove with still more varieties a few years after their move, when the couple transported a bounty of plants from Kim’s husband’s family homestead in Pennsylvania.  

“We were traveling to our daughter’s soccer game and it just happened to be very close to my in-laws’ property—a 125-year-old family farm. We asked permission to divide some of my husband’s grandmother’s peonies, which were beautiful and abundant. We filled our car with them and brought them home.

She notes that peonies do not always like to be transplanted. “Sometimes they won’t adjust, but our farm peonies did very well and have made a beautiful addition to the garden.” Kim smiles as she mentions their successful move. “The first peony flower to bloom each spring is almost always one of the farm peonies.”

Kim arranges her beds by color; some beds have white, others pink, and still others red blooms. These voluptuous flowers, with their exquisite colors and heady fragrance, create a display that is a feast for the senses every spring. Kim, who takes pride in her blooms (find Kim’s peony-growing advice in the sidebar, “Perfect Peonies”), loves them all, with a soft spot for her vintage varieties. There’s Sarah Bernhardt, named for the Victorian actress, with lush pink blossoms, introduced in 1906; Duchesse de Nemours, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, with creamy white petals and a sweet fragrance; Festiva Maxima, another antique with large and abundant white blooms; and Francis Ortegot, with its eye-popping red flowers.

Kim also has a favorite. “Chestine Gowdy is very fragrant,” she says. “It’s an excellent plant for the garden and has a pale pink flower that is so beautiful when cut.”

She adds, “I love to grow peonies in the garden, but I enjoy equally the ability to cut them and bring them into the house. My husband and I love to entertain in our home, and I don’t think there is anything prettier than a vase of freshly cut peonies. Their flowers and dark leaves are so elegant and work so well in any type of arrangement, casual or formal.”           


Kim’s lush peony beds are a showpiece, but they’re not the only gem in the garden. About four or five years into the landscaping/renovation process, Kim and her father were exploring a kidney-shaped patch of ground that was covered in debris.

“No one had touched it before. We had stayed away from this area as it was so overwhelming, and we had plenty of other projects to tackle,” she recalls. “But out of curiosity, we put a spade into the ground, and water seeped up to the surface. It seemed as though there might be a pond there.”

There was, and much more. What father and daughter had unearthed was the remnant of a shade garden, with a pond as its centerpiece. Researching further, Kim discovered that the garden had been installed by Agnes Selkirk Clark, wife of Cameron Clark, and a noted landscape architect in her own right. Kim and her husband knew that they had to restore this garden, which had been a secret for years. “Agnes Clark designed many gardens in Fairfield, often in conjunction with a house designed by her husband. Many of them are lost because of subdivisions of larger properties, which displace the gardens for a pool, or some other structure. We feel very fortunate to have one.”

To the bones of the design, Kim has added traditional shade plantings, such as spirea, daphne and viburnum, along with several varieties of hosta and fern. This once neglected spot has become a quiet sanctuary for enjoying the water and shade on a hot day.

As peony season approaches, and Kim awaits the show that her years of collecting, dividing and moving have produced, she muses on the benefits of using a long-term plan. “Renovating and adding to a vintage property is best done slowly so that you can research the garden from a historical perspective. I enjoyed taking the time to visit the historical society, read books and visit other gardens to learn what would best suit our garden. I also received help from two landscape design firms throughout the process: Rob Wilber of Wilber & King Nurseries, and John Lloyd and Selim Yolac of Yolac & Lloyd Design,” she says with a smile. “The garden is always changing and evolving, and it always provides such beauty and a sense of tranquility.”

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