Why Fayetteville Rules: Chotkowski Gardens

There are a lot of places in town that are obvious choices for why Fayetteville Rules columns. These are the places, things, people, and businesses that make Fayetteville the place that we all identify with.

George’s Majestic Lounge. The Fayetteville Public Library. The Farmers Market. The Hog Call.

But as great as these things are, and as much as we love them, there are a few places in Fayetteville that are a little off the beaten path, a little less known, but no less essential to the incredible town that we live in.

A couple years ago, a friend and coworker told me about the Peony Farm west of town. He was a graphic designer, and an artist, and every year he’d take a week off work from the ad agency we worked at to go out and “paint peonies.”

The week after his vacation, he’d bring in the pictures he’d painted, and those paintings were my first impression of Chotkowski Gardens.

Located off Highway 16 in the Wedington Woods, Chotkoski Gardens is a rare place. There are over 800 herbaceous varieties of peonies, and 200 tree varieties in expansive rows covering every inch of the few acres on the farm. You can smell the flowers as soon as you open your car door.

Henry Chotkowski and his wife Karen have operated the farm since 1995. Henry got his MFA from Yale as a painter, and spent his pre-farm years as an artist in Washington DC, with occasional shows in New York. Henry taught painting at Indiana University, Texas Tech, Florida State, and the University of Arkansas before starting the farm in ’95.

He became fascinated with Peonies when he worked on a farm years ago in Northern Virginia.

“Peonies have an ephemeral quality to them. The are great vehicles for light, and during the peak of the growing season, they can really bring tears to your eyes.” Chotkowski said. “I definitely don’t go on vacation during Peony season. I’d miss the whole show.”

Chotkowski is also fascinated with the way Peonies have been hybridized and evolved over the years. “A peony may have started in 1824 in France, and that person would have cross pollenated them, created a new species, and split the plant into 9-10 pieces. Then those will spread and disseminate throughout the world. They are living pieces that kind of have a history to them.”

But growing the Peonies doesn’t come easy. “I think it’s safe to say I’ve dug more holes than anyone else in my (Yale) graduating class.” Chotkowski told us. “It’s a lot of grunt labor.”

Chotkowski sells several of his cut flowers locally to Pam at Flora, but he occasionally sells flowers for weddings, and of course, he’ll cut a bouquet for you and sell them to you if you visit the farm. His biggest weekend of the year is Mothers Day weekend. Last weekend, Chotkowski estimated over 500 people visited the farm on Saturday.

There really aren’t words for how beautiful and peaceful Chotkowski Gardens are, and there certainly aren’t words for the combination of the sights of the flowers, the quiet surroundings of the Wedington woods combined with the smells of the over 800 plants on the farm. In short, it’s breathtaking.

The peonies begin blooming in late March / early April, with the tree varieties blooming first, followed by the herbaceous peonies. The peak season will end in a week or less, so those hoping to see them at their best should probably visit this weekend.

Chotkowski Gardens is not as iconic as the Walton Arts Center, and it isn’t a place you can visit every day, but the unique garden west of town in a pretty incredible place to spend an afternoon, and yet another reason that Fayetteville rules.

[If the slideshow doesn’t load, visit the entire set at our Flickr page.]