Yesterday I met with a woman whose online handle is ‘Dahlia Queen’. She greeted me in her suburban driveway next to a trailer of Mitchell’s compost. She did not have bright spiky hair, nor a peachy inwardness. She’d just come home from work – work that didn’t look like it had anything to do with gardening, for she was wearing clean black slacks and a fire-engine-red collared shirt, her cardigan neatly buttoned over top. She greeted me kindly considering I’d only just called the day before, telling her I’d found her phone number on a baggie containing a tuber at the Oak Bay Florist. Was she the one who sold the single blooms in the fall? The dinner-plate-sized dahlias? Those strong-stemmed ones in the fabulous colours for four or five dollars apiece?
When she said yes, I asked if I could meet her the following day. Won’t take an hour, I had said. She lived by the university: How big could her plot be?
Try 800 dahlias strong.
Beside the driveway the stakes began – rows of rebar, soldiering along fence lines, standing four feet high. Beds of black earth pocked with holes awaited plants, while beds held dahlias a few inches high. Hundreds of pots huddled under plastic frames around the house, and her garage had become a greenhouse – skylighted, open-doored – every surface covered with white-tagged pots. How did she do it? And why?
The ‘Dahlia Queen’, aka Connie Young-Davis, grows for shows. She grows for contests around the Pacific Northwest and breeds her own varieties. She’s a self-proclaimed hobbyist, a humble label for someone who has won countless awards and is nothing short of a plant breeder, a woman doing the ancient and admirable work of bringing new horticultural varieties to life. She cross-pollinates by hand, slips stockings over flowers to keep off meddling bees, and waits years for results.
I’m guessing you don’t have years to grow dahlias from seed, so here are some of Connie’s tips for a fine stock of late-summer blooms. First, get going now. Plant some tubers in pots. Keep them moist, but not soggy, and warm, but not hot. Pavers that have been warmed by the sun during the day are fine for overnight, or a cold frame, a windowsill or a garage. The tubers may be showing growth by now – a wink of green from an eye, or a potato-like sprout – both signs they are ready to stop draining carbs from the tuber and start photosynthesizing their way towards flowers.
Connie starts her tubers in pots to keep herself organized and get an earlier start. Given I’m long on faith and low on patience, I’d already planted my tubers when we met. I’d amended the soil with compost and an organic fertilizer first, which Connie condoned. Dahlias are heavy feeders. She plants her tubers only about an inch under the surface, tends her soil and waters frequently. I set mine about three inches underground. Both of us use raised beds. (In my perennial border, I dug up some clumps that had overwintered, divided them and re-planted them in compost. These will need staking come July.)
I’ve been hearing from some readers who are gardening on balconies, many in hot sun. Dahlias are a good choice for planters, but keep them moist and well-fed. It’s fine to buy plants at a nursery, but choose a variety that won’t grow too tall. You don’t want a plant a big as a person appearing on your deck, and a healthy dahlia can be a big dahlia. Because I’m a wannabe flower farmer, I’ve sunk six-foot-tall T-posts into my dahlia bed with a plan to corral my fantasy flowers with baling twine. Connie has a little more self control. She disbuds her plants, pinching out side shoots to grow larger blooms on singular, strong stems.
If you’d like to visit Connie’s garden in August to see an astonishing range of dahlia colours and forms, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the Victoria Dahlia Society’s website at www.victoriadahliasociety.org for more information on local shows and sales.
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid Oak Bay gardener.