Alaska’s Freshest Catch of Peonies

Peony farming keeps pace with commercial fishing as important source of income for Homer.

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Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies

In July, Kelly Shore, of Damascus, Md.-based Petals by the Shore, and Beth Van Sandt, co-owner with her husband Kurt Weichhand of Homer, Alaska-based Scenic Place Peonies, documented a quintessential moment for Alaska-grown peonies, all in celebration of American Flowers Week.

Their peony-centric collaborations occurred when Kelly traveled to Homer as the featured floral designer for the Field to Vase Dinner at Scenic Place Peonies. She also designed and produced a romantic styled shoot photographed in the farm’s peony fields (which appeared in Florists’ Review in October 2017).

Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies

“I met Beth and Kurt when they came to volunteer at last year’s First Lady’s Luncheon in Washington, DC,” Kelly explains. “It made me want to learn more about what they do, to immerse myself in the farm culture and understand what makes Alaska’s peonies different than peonies here in the lower 48.”

Homer is known as “The City of Peonies” in acknowledgement of the attention the flower has brought to local agriculture, business and tourism. Yet, Homer is also known for its dynamic fishing industry, which touches Beth and Kurt’s lives as personally as peonies. Beth wanted the American Flowers Week photo shoot to reflect Homer’s two economic engines – commercial fishing and peony farming. “I grow the flowers, and Kurt harvests wild Alaska salmon, and we’re passionate about both catches,” she points out.

Brainstorming led to a thoroughly unique peony experience, documented on the docks and shoreline of Homer’s small boat harbor. The women envisioned a “catch” of peonies gathered in seine netting traditionally employed in commercial fishing. Using a repurposed seining net, Kelly attached a medley of white, cream, blush and pink peonies to appear just-gathered from the water’s surface.

Lush and fully opened, the peonies represent the best of the season. Beth explains that, “Because of our cooler temperatures and our outrageous hours of sunlight, not to mention our fantastic soil, our peonies grow extremely well, and we get beautiful, vibrant colors.”

Kelly and award-winning Alaska photographer Joshua Veldstra scouted for just the right boat to help tell their story visually. “I was so adamant about finding a boat with the ‘HOMER’ name on it,” Kelly insisted. “I had this whole vision of the pink flowers popping off the blueness of the water and the sky and the glaciers. And I love seeing this feminine flower against the ruggedness of that maritime setting.” Ashley Johnson, a flower-farmer-in-training who spent the summer as an intern at Scenic Place Peonies, agreed to model for the peony-and-fishing storyline. She wore a pair of white bib overalls, the female version of the bright orange Grunden overalls typically worn by commercial fishing pros and many peony farmers. “I wanted the net of peonies to almost be part of Ashley’s attire, as if she was pulling up this teeming catch of flowers,” Kelly says. Adding peony petals to the suspender straps and adorning Ashley’s head with a full crown of peonies further incorporated the flowers.

Homer’s famous Katchemak Bay and the majestic glaciers in the distance are a constant presence for Homer’s fishing and flower farming cultures, Beth points out. “While I’m harvesting peonies in my field, Kurt is harvesting for fish in the inlet. The two seasons are pretty much parallel.”

Scenic Place Peonies’ crew begins cutting peonies during the second week of July and continues to the second week of August. About 1.5 acres are devoted to growing 6,000 peony plants representing 14 varieties.

Caring for this very special place on the planet, where glaciers meet ocean, and seafood and flowers are gifts from nature, is of utmost important to Beth and Kurt. Scenic Place Peonies is a Certified Naturally Grown farm, reflecting its sustainable practices. “I want to be able to put my face in my peonies and not have to worry about inhaling chemicals. I want to smell the scent of my peonies and touch them and connect on all the senses,” Beth maintains.

For Kelly, her time spent in Homer’s peony world was deeply moving. “I felt such a connection, and I wanted to express how being there influenced me. That meant making sure every part of my art and my creativity was representative of the location.”

Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies

Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies

CREDITS

Floral Palette: Peony flowers and petals, Scenic Place Peonies (Homer, Alaska) scenicplacepeonies.com, @scenicplacepeonies
Designer: Kelly Shore; Petals by the Shore; Damascus, Md. petalsbytheshore.com, @petalsbytheshore
Design assistance: Lisa Thorne; Thorne & Thistle; Auburn, Ala. thorneandthistles.com, @thorneandthistle
Models: Ashley Johnson, @ah.schlee
Hair/Makeup: Elizabeth Morphis, Scenic Place Peonies
Apparel: Donated by Grundens, shop.grundens.com @grundens
Photography: Joshua and Brittney Veldstra joshuaveldstra.com, @joshuaveldstra
Location: Homer Small Boat Harbor; Homer, Alaska

Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies

Alaska's Freshest Catch of Peonies