A Reidsville attorney’s beautiful living legacy
By Ross Howell Jr.
Photographs by Lynn Donovan
At the end of a woodsy farm road near Reidsville, I drive up to a snug, modest house that was built by the late Benjamin Ross Wrenn.
I park on a circular drive in front of the house. As I get out of the car, I notice a horse paddock just beyond the yard.
Wrenn’s daughters, Nancy and Heather, accompanied by a shaggy farm dog, come out the front door of the house to greet me.
Born in Greensboro to a mother who’d kept lovely perennial gardens in her native Virginia and a father who was a renowned greenskeeper, “Benny” Wrenn grew up loving the outdoors. He was given a pony by a friend of the family, Edward Benjamin, the developer of the Starmount neighborhood and Friendly Shopping Center.
“When the neighborhood boys were out riding bikes,” Heather says, “Dad’d show up riding his pony.”
Young Wrenn was the namesake of developer Benjamin and famed golf course designer Donald Ross, another family friend.
He attended Wake Forest University on a golf scholarship and earned his law degree there. For 55 years, Wrenn ran a successful criminal law practice in Reidsville. And he was a man of many interests.
“Dad taught himself to read, write and speak Spanish at the age of 70,” Heather tells me. “He was a lifelong learner.”
I take a seat at the dining room table with his daughters.
Though he passed away in 2017, Wrenn’s presence suffuses the place. Facing me is a floor-to-ceiling mural of rolling Piedmont farmland painted by an artist friend. Heather points out a cabinet that her father made by hand. There are paintings of horses hanging on the walls, along with photos of Wrenn and his daughters on horseback.
“He rode right up to age 75,” Nancy says. “He always thought of himself as a cowboy.” The sisters smile at each other.
Over the entrance to the adjoining room hangs a sign that reads “Benny’s Kitchen.”
“He loved to cook, too,” Heather says. “He was a phenomenal cook!”
The farm dog that greeted me whines to go out, and Nancy rises to open the door.
She tells me her father purchased the 70-acre farm in 1965.
Everly Long, Nancy Wrenn, Heather Wrenn
“The farmer who owned the place was mowing the bottom pasture with his mule,” Nancy continues, returning to her seat. “Dad bought it from him right there on the spot.”
“I think initially he thought of the farm as his respite, his getaway from law work, where he could follow his passion,” she adds. “This was his happy place.”
But her father also wanted the farm to sustain itself financially. Ever the visionary, he set up a corporation, naming it Heathernan Inc., in honor of his daughters, to provide the framework.
Wrenn started with livestock.
“He named the farm the Cherokee Cattle Company,” Heather says. But raising cattle didn’t prove to be profitable. And since he wasn’t living on the property full-time, there were other problems.
“It always seemed like in the middle of the night, somebody would call Dad to tell him his cows were out in the road,” Heather says.
Wrenn gave up on the livestock and decided to plant Christmas trees. But the summer sun of the Piedmont proved to be too strong for the white pines he’d brought from the North Carolina mountains.
“Dad was always thinking about the future, how to sustain the farm, how to get revenues coming in,” Nancy says.
So he decided to build greenhouses.
“We started with five greenhouses to propagate annuals,” Heather says. Wrenn purchased flats of flowering plants from suppliers, then potted them in terra cotta containers he’d found at a good price in Georgia.
Ever resourceful, Wrenn designed a production line.
“He built this great big box,” Heather continues, “and he’d take his bulldozer and shove mulch and good soil in, and everybody had a cubbyhole, and you’d grab your soil, pop your plant in a pot. It was mass production!”
The potted annuals were so well received at farmers’ markets that Wrenn and his daughters expanded their selection, offering hostas, daylilies and tuberoses.
“Remember those beautiful tuberoses?” Nancy asks.
But again, there were problems, especially for a father with a full-time law practice. Even with perennials, potting was labor-intensive. The greenhouses were expensive to maintain and costly to irrigate, heat and cool.
Then Wrenn announced his semi-retirement from his law practice.
“He got real serious about what he was going to do next on the farm,” Heather says.
“So he started his research,” Nancy adds.
This was before the internet. Wrenn read book after book. He researched plants and growing zones. He studied soil types.
What he discovered was that the farm was situated in a region well-suited to grow an elegantly beautiful flower that had been cultivated in China for millennia. Even better, it was a hardy flower requiring relatively little maintenance in order to thrive.
“And deer won’t eat them,” Nancy adds.
Genus Paeonia. The peony.
And so, in time, Cherokee Cattle Company became The Peony Patch.
“He bought bulbs in batches direct from Holland,” Heather says.
“He started very simple, with whites and pinks,” Nancy continues. “He was thinking about marketability. Peonies are a big flower for weddings. Brides love the whites.”
Initially, Wrenn planted 2 acres, carefully measuring the distances between the bulbs, their depth in the soil and the grassy paths between rows. The peonies flowered beautifully the first year, but there could be no harvest.
“It’s a long-term investment,” Heather says. “By rule, you should not cut stems from a peony till it’s 3 years old.”
Seeing that first “blush,” with the peonies in peak bloom, Wrenn wanted more.
“He made me cut my horse pasture in half,” Heather laughs.
Carefully, incrementally, Wrenn added field after field.
Today, The Peony Patch comprises some 15 acres, with more than 50,000 bulbs in the ground.
There are four varieties. Duchesse de Nemours and Festiva Maxima are the whites, and Monsieur Jules Elie and Sarah Bernhardt are the pinks. All are double-blossom varieties, so they’re enormous.
In a typical year, the peonies are cut over a 14- to 21-day period beginning May 1, depending upon the weather.
This is a time of intense labor.
“The first couple days, we’re cutting maybe a couple hundred stems, walking each row, each field,” Nancy says. By the third or fourth day — especially if there’s a day of full sunshine with temperatures in the 70s or 80s — the cutters might harvest 3,000 to 4,000 stems a day.
Fortunately, there are three laborers who have been with the farm for years. They see to it that each stem is individually cut, placed carefully in stackable bins and stored in a walk-in cooler at 34–36 degrees Fahrenheit for no more than two weeks.
“The flowers have to be cut at just the right time,” says Heather. “You can have one that’s not just right at 7 o’clock in the morning but at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that same day, you’d better get it.” Cutters walk each row in each field, gathering flowers, sometimes twice a day.
“Ideally we harvest stems that are at least 24 inches long,” Nancy says. “And since the blossoms are so big, they’re very heavy.”
The primary market for the peonies is wholesalers. Many come directly to the farm to pick up their orders, though Nancy or Heather might make deliveries on a limited basis as far away as Raleigh or Charlotte.
One of their most loyal customers is Randy McManus of Randy McManus Designs in Greensboro.
“Randy has been a real business partner since my Dad put his first peony in the ground,” Nancy says. “He’s a true peony lover.”
After the back-breaking surge of the blush, the harvest gradually tapers off. In a typical season, The Peony Patch will sell 10,000–12,000 stems. Even after harvest, the fields remain colorful for a few more days.
“We always leave at least three blossoms on each bush,” Heather says.
In preparation for the next season, the stackable bins will be washed and stored. The cooler will be shut down and cleaned with bleach. The fields will be bush hogged. Later — and only after at least two hard frosts — the fields are burned and raked for debris, as wind and rain permit.
Usually Nancy and her family — including grandchildren — will drive up from her home in Wilmington to celebrate Christmas at the farm with Heather and her husband.
Then it’s a waiting game. Waiting to see when the tiny red buttons of new peony shoots begin to show themselves for spring.
There are ongoing challenges for Wrenn’s daughters, of course. The need to replace equipment costing thousands of dollars. A new species of tree invading the fields. The creeping vines of poison oak choking the bulbs. And, since fields have yielded cuttings for well more than 20 years, they are long past the time when most growers dig up, clean and sterilize bulbs to rotate them into new fields.
And there’s slim payoff on the investment and work after expenses. Nancy and Heather tell me it’s actually the income from rental houses their father put on the farm that goes farthest to sustain it.
So why continue?
“Sometimes the phone rings during harvest and it’s a little old man looking for peonies to give his wife for their 70th anniversary celebration,” Heather says. “Or it’s a bride’s mother who says all her daughter wants for her wedding are peonies. Or it’s just someone who remembers the flowers that grew in their grandmother’s garden. People feel such passion for the peony. I think that’s why Dad selected it.”
Wrenn’s other daughter answers this way.
“I’m a project manager for an information technology company and Heather’s a nurse,” says Nancy. “The peonies are a real change of pace for us. Here we go from service jobs to production jobs, where we can work hard and see what we’ve accomplished during the day. That’s rewarding.”
“But mainly I do it out of honor and love and respect for my sister and Dad,” Nancy concludes. “When I’m on this farm, I feel very close to him.” OH
For more information or to contact Nancy and Heather, visit www.thepeonypatch.com.
Ross Howell Jr. is a peony lover and an O.Henry contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.