Story: Diane Carroll |
Each spring brings surprises to Henry Chotkowski’s peony farm on the outskirts of Fayetteville, when the three-acre plot of land transforms from bare earth into a sea of green leaves and bright blooms. “No two years are the same,” says Chotkowski, as weather conditions leading up to bloom time influence when the plants, which grow each year from root stock, will appear and how many blooms they’ll sport. “Some years, a plant that seldom blooms will surprise me with a big show, and one that blooms often will be more spare,” he adds. “It keeps things interesting around here, waiting to see what happens each season.”
The fact that the plants have endured through time, changing and adapting to a variety of climates, is part of the intrigue that drew Chotkowski to his profession. “What hooked me is knowing their history,” he says. “The roots are living tissue that connect all the way back to the original plant—I have a French peony that was hybridized in 1824 and a piece of that plant has endured nearly two centuries and made its way to my farm in Northwest Arkansas.” Much like the plants he now cultivates, Chotkowski followed a similar circuitous path to make his way to the Fayetteville farm he calls home.
Hailing from Connecticut, Chotkowski attended Yale University and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. He spent several years as “an itinerant artist and college professor,” he says, when he began working on a peony farm in Virginia as a part-time job. A few years later, he and his wife, Karen, relocated to Fayetteville for career opportunities with the University of Arkansas. Having developed a close relationship with the owners of the farm, they shared their peony rootstock of nearly 600 plants with him as the beginnings of a garden of his own.
Chotkowski now works full time on his farm, which contains more than 900 varieties of herbaceous plants and 200 varieties of tree peonies. Rather than develop a large-scale operation, his main goal is to perpetuate a variety of cultivars. Sales are based on word of mouth referrals, with interested buyers touring the grounds during bloom time and ordering rootstock to be picked up in the fall after the growing season is complete.
The highlight of each spring is Mother’s Day, when the plants are nearly all in bloom. Chotkowski hosts an annual open house, where visitors can walk through the rows of bushes or admire cut flowers displayed on tables. Peony enthusiasts are usually treated to a bit of history or a flowering surprise, such as last year when Chotkowski debuted a new yellow peony that had recently been hybridized in Europe and shared with only ten growers around the world.
Chotkowski notes that the event cultivates its own history, as multiple generations of a family gather for Mother’s Day and wander through the blooming acreage together. “Sometimes we’ll have four generations of a family here, from a great grandmother who loves the flowers to the youngest children just getting acquainted with them,” he says, “and seeing the plants in bloom is intriguing enough to interest them all.”
Chotkowski Gardens Mother’s Day Open House
May 9, 1 to 6 p.m.
Live music, refreshments, dessert and an opportunity to order peonies or buy cut flowers
16142 Pin Oak Road
West of Fayetteville in Washington County
The farm is open to the public for peony viewing from late April through the end of May