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Lush Life

Secrets of a local gardener’s favorite perennial—peonies

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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.”           

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