Gilsland Farm: A Wildlife Sanctuary Bursting With Peony Splendor
Learn the history and legacy of this property and tips on growing the lustrous peony
Gilsland Farm, the headquarters of Maine Audubon, is a 65-acre tract that sits on the Presumptscot River estuary in Falmouth. People come to watch the birds and walk trails that wind through fields and woods and along the water’s edge. Wild turkeys roam, and meadowlarks nest in the grass. And for a few fragrant weeks each June, these fields and even the forest glow with the luminous blooms of thousands of peonies.
It is an odd sight: flowers in luscious ice cream colors, cultivated over centuries to meet human specifications, appearing where nature is expected to run wild. But the peonies are not there by accident. In fact, they are much older than Maine Audubon’s presence on the land.
Gilsland Farm was once the summer retreat of David Moulton, a Portland lawyer and conservationist. Moulton bought the land in 1911 to indulge two of his passions: Jersey cattle and plants, peonies in particular. He planted 400 varieties of peonies over seven acres and sold the roots to gardeners throughout the country.
The perseverance of the peony
These are herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora), also called Chinese or common garden peonies. Herbaceous means the plants die back to the ground in fall and emerge with fresh growth the following spring. As perennials go, they live for an exceptionally long time—more than 100 years—longer than the gardeners who plant them.
Moulton died in 1951, and the property languished. But his peonies kept blooming in the old propagation and growing beds, even as the forest reclaimed the fields. His daughter, Ruth Moulton Freeman, donated the land to Maine Audubon in 1974, and Gilsland Farm has been its headquarters since 1976.
“The peonies are a legacy of the property,” says Peter Baecher, director of properties. He estimates that there are 1,200 plants still growing in the rows where they were planted decades ago, with the youngest a mere 68 years old. More than 300 peonies flourish within view of the headquarters, tended by Baecher and volunteers.
Peony blooms may look delicate and ephemeral, and indeed they arrive and depart in a few weeks around the June solstice. However, “it’s quite a tough plant,” Baecher says, hardy enough to take USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 3 winters in stride. In fact, peonies need cold winters to bloom, a reason they do not do well south of Zone 7.
While the cultivar names of the Gilsland Farm peonies are lost to time, the exquisite flowers and intoxicating fragrance return year after year to delight new generations of visitors.
Tips for growing peonies from Roger Lycette
Peonies are a reliable and almost carefree plant. Roger Lycette, past president of the Peony Society of Maine, grows more than 300 varieties in his garden in Bangor. He shares some growing tips:
- Container peonies can be planted in spring. Bareroot peonies should be planted in fall, about six weeks before the ground freezes.
- Peonies do not transplant well, so site them where they will stay. Allow at least three feet of space between plants.
- Roots should be planted 1½ to 2 inches deep in well-drained soil, with the “eyes” (new growth) facing up.
- Peonies need at least six hours of sun per day. “More is better,” Lycette says.
- After the first frost, cut the foliage back to one inch and trash the cuttings. “About the only enemy peonies have is the botrytis fungus,” Lycette says. “It lives in the soil and can kill stems. Removing the foliage helps prevent it.”
Visit Gilsland Farm in June to view thousands of peonies
Gilsland Farm is open to the public seven days a week (except holidays). Admission is free. The 2019 Peony Bloom and Ice Cream Social is Wednesday, June 19.
20 Gilsland Farm Rd., Falmouth, ME 04105
207 781-2330, maineaudubon.org
Mail order peony Sources
Hollingsworth Peonies, Maryville, Missouri
Hollingsworthpeonies.com, 302 635-0140
Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery
Avalon, Wisconsin, Songsparrow.com, 608 883-2356
Old House Gardens, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Oldhousegardens.com, 734 995-1486
White Flower Farm, Litchfield, Connecticut
Whiteflowerfarm.com, 800 503-9624