Fairbanks researchers and peony farmers work to improve peony growth across Alaska

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 3:42 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Two research scientists, who are also peony farmers, are working in Fairbanks to improve peony growth across the State of Alaska.

According to Dr. Jill Russell, one owner of Boreal Peonies, she and her husband couldn’t resist experimenting when they got into the peony business. “Since both my husband and I are PhD research scientists and college professors, when we got into the peony farming business we knew we had to include some kind of research because we were fascinated with the industry, and we wanted to try and figure out what helps peonies grow the best for everybody in the industry.”

On the Boreal Peony farm land, Dr. Jill Russell explained that the pair has created rows of peonies dedicated to being used for research purposes. “So what we have is eight rows, with the exact same peonies in them. The first row you can see has white flowers, the very first flowers. The first three flowers are that white variety, called Festiva Powder Puff, and that variety is the first three plants in each row. And so it continues, with the different colored flags separating the different varieties. So let’s say we run a nutrient treatment on row number one. When we want to compare the effects on Festiva Powder Puff, we can compare these flowers with the flowers in other rows that didn’t get that treatment.”

According to Dr. David Russell, the other owner of Boreal Peonies, the experiments cover a wide range of variables. “We’re a commercial peony operation, and integral to successful peony growing in Alaska is understanding what the best variety of peonies is for this particular region. Once we understand the best variety, [then] how do we best increase plant vigor to allow them to produce the best crop? We have the experimental aisles, but that’s only part of the research that we do here at Boreal Peonies. We’re looking at soil microbes, soil fungi and soil bacteria [which] are actually super critical as any of you gardeners know - you got to have a good soil to have a good product. So we’re looking at differences in fungi, in mycorrhizal fungi, in bacteria, and trying to find out how we can best augment our soils. We can limit pesticides that way, we can limit pests, and have much greater vigor in our plants.”

Dr. David Russell also explained that the Boreal Peony experiments even include water treatments and nutrient treatments to find just the right combination for optimal peony growth. “We’re also looking at what we do with water treatments. Can we increase irrigation at certain times of the plant growth so we get taller stronger plants? We’re doing nutrient treatments looking at... can we put different foliars on in addition to fertilizers to again help with stem strength, flower size, flower color, longevity in a vase, and things critical in a commercial industry - just basically, what flowers grow best?”

The results of the couple’s research are available for peony growers across the state; and while currently focused on the Interior, Dr. David Russell said Boreal Peonies does plan to branch out to experiment for more coastal regions as well. “There are about 200 varieties or so, even a little bit more, of peonies in the world. They’re actually adapted for this area in that they’re from northern China. Siberia is where the native ones are from so they are cold tolerant, or most of them are cold tolerant. But the growing conditions in Alaska vary tremendously between interior and coastal areas of Homer, Kenai, and even down in Anchorage. So we’re looking to see what varieties do best in the Interior for our Interior growers, and then there will be subsequent studies looking for what varieties - and it might be a totally different set of varieties - grow best near the coast.”

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