Photo by Frederic Lagrange from Martha's Entertaining.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, the novel that Martha based her plans upon, is semi-autobiographical and charts the horticultural struggles and triumphs of a high-society protagonist interested in creating a lavish garden on her property. At her estate in Pomerania, Von Arnim had created an enormous, circular bed of peonies sheltered within a tall hedge that formed the perimeter to protect the delicate petals from damaging winds. The circle was more than 300 feet across and Von Arnim’s two daughters were said to have spent many of their summer days enjoying this little paradise, picking the stems for pretty bouquets indoors.
Taking a second look at Martha’s peony garden, then, and the inspiration becomes clear. Martha's peony garden has been planted with eleven double rows of 22 herbaceous peony plants, 44 in each row of the same variety. She chose varieties that came in shades of pink (Von Arnim thought red peonies to be “vulgar”) ensuring various flower types: single, semi-double, double and anemone-type blossoms. She staggered their plantings to prolong the blooming season: some bloom earlier than others, extending the amount of time the plants are in blossom. All of the plants were purchased from a single nursery: Klehm’s Song Sparrow Nursery in Avalon, Wisconsin. Also, just as Von Arnim described in her book, Martha has sheltered her garden within a hedge of rounded boxwood shrubs.
Martha was so pleased with the results of her peony garden that she began a new tradition: an annual Peony Party! I’ve often imagined how intoxicating the beautiful scent must be when the beds are in full bloom. Peony fragrance is one of my favourites.
Peonies play a starring role at Martha's annual Peony Party at Bedford. Photo by Frederic Lagrange from Martha's Entertaining.
This photo of the garden, looking towards the Winter House in late spring, reveals Martha's carefully planned selection of peony species, which bloom at different times: half of the peonies are in bloom while the other half are still budding. This ensures a very long picking season for arrangements.