My Improbable Dahlia Habit

Another happy surprise I took from Portland.

I am a dahlia guy. Growing up, I hated yard work. In the desert, it was a hot, nasty business that ended with me wheezing and sneezing nonstop in front of the air conditioner. No such thing as Claritin in the faded past. But when, in 1990, I bought my first little house on Mt. Tabor, everything about lawn work was different. I bought a big, used Reader’s Digest book of gardening and taught myself the nature of each of the plants I inherited from an elderly couple. Out front, under the dining-room window, were dahlias. I was smitten.

In bloom, the variety of dahlia flowers struck me as alien. Not merely alien, as the different, but something from another planet. The blooms do things that seem impossible. Geometric, honeycombed balls. Heavy saucers of rippling color. Purples are so dark that they may as well be black. Delicate stars that dance in the breeze and give up their petals almost as quickly as you notice them.

When Sally and I moved a couple of blocks up Mt. Tabor in 1977, I brought the dahlia tubers from that little first garden. It turned out that down our new block lived a frail, kind old man who was an expert in two plants: dahlias and fuchsias. One late summer afternoon, I saw he was sitting in a chair in his driveway, cane propped between his legs. As always, I admired his garden. This time, I had the privilege of thanking the gardener. As is sometimes the case, whatever aches and fatigue he bore disappeared as he beckoned me to follow him up his long driveway to a combination shed and greenhouse. Before I followed him inside, I was gobsmacked by what appeared to be reinforced clothesline in the shade of a tall tree. He had hung rows of different varieties of fuchsias. Purples, reds, pinks. The cascade of inverted flowers over the edges of each pot. On the ground beneath each plant was a puddle of faded color, wilted flowers returning to the soil.

He was eager to impart what he knew about his flowers. I am now old enough to know that impulse. He told me how he bred varieties, stored his plants and tubers, the secrets of his soil mix and what time means for a dahlia. I was an eager apprentice. As I parted, he pressed some cut flowers into my hands. I scooped the flowers into the crook of my elbow, offered my hand and thanked him. As I walked to the end of his driveway, I turned and watched as the electric charge of our meeting faded and he grew dim and seemed to shrink a little. It was a lucky encounter as he passed away soon after and two subsequent owners, lacking his passion, let his work fade away. One day, curious, I walked back up the driveway. The shed was abandoned and the fuchsia clotheslines were gone.

I created three front yard beds for my dahlias. While I was still a working stiff, I didn’t have the time to dig the tubers every season. Wet weather killed about a third of the flowers every year, which meant that we could make a fun trip to Swan Island Dahlias to pick new varieties to blend into the mix. There was one flower I watched for every year, a mid-sized purple beauty that added white tips as it matured. That variety came with me from our first house.

Living on retirement time, I kept a promise to dig and winter over my tubers in the basement. I divided them and dumped them into 2 milk crates. My system is simple. The containers were for either tall or small varieties. Each summer was like Christmas, with mystery dahlia packages under the tree for a month as they came into bloom. No two yearly gardens were the same. I had become the neighborhood old dahlia guy, educating my neighbors on how to grow them and providing starter tubers from the abundance of the division. When strolling folks admired my bounty, I cut flowers for them. The youngsters were especially fun. I told them the flower would keep for days in water. This news inevitably resulted in squealing children running down the sidewalk. Funny how they all thought getting the flowers in water was an emergency.

That leads me to the dilemma of our move to Tigard. I HAD to take my dahlias. When we found our new home, it had an awful 200 sq ft all St John’s Wort mess in the front. The sunny location was perfect for a dahlia bed. To get the house in the crazy market, we had to do a 60-day rent-back which put my flowers beyond the planting period in May and early June. I needed 2 things: a landscaper to remove the invasive wort and soil prepped for my flowers. I asked our agent to create a new condition to close the deal. I had to have access to the garden before we moved in. The two agents had never heard of such a thing, but the seller was a gardener and understood. And here’s the deal…. Our offer was not the highest, but the dahlia amendment penetrated the enforced anonymity of the transaction. The seller saw a human via a garden and later told me that the dahlias were one reason they took our offer.

Plants don’t have a calendar. The landscaper was hard to find. Time drifted out of my control. In the basement, the tubers sprouted. We couldn’t move until the middle of June. I was going to lose all the dahlias as the bed wasn’t ready. There was no good advice to be had for planting in the heat of early July. I created a solution. I bought two dozen 3 gallon planting bags and filled them with compost. Dahlias are delicate when as they sprout. The probing shoot is weak, and the tuber puts out a lacy network of roots. One by one, I moved the sprouted flowers from the crates to the bags. One each. Two rows of black bags in the new back yard: tall and small. My idea was to let the dahlias mature into reasonably healthy green sprouts, then move them to their new home as they matured. Other growers told me, “Maybe some will survive.”

I planted the first dozen. First, I dug their new homes and tossed in some bone meal. Then like a woman rolling down stockings, I revealed the new plants, carefully pulling down the sides of each bag. The network of fine roots filled the new ball of life. I wiggled my hands under the fresh growth and lifted the baby plants out, cupped in my hands. A curious intimacy happened each time I lifted a plant from its temporary home. I eased each one into the holes and snuggled new soil around roots. Given dahlia nature, there was no reason this should work. But it did.

Today, the tall varieties should be at least five feet high, exploding with blooms. My most robust plants are not yet three feet high. But, against the odds, here and there I have blooms. The picture above is the first one to arrive. I know that variety. In my last Mt. Tabor garden, it was at the bottom of my driveway, closet to the sidewalk. It was the star that beckoned passing eyes. That plant should be four feet high. Still, from a single, scraggly shoot, it did what even abused and stunted dahlias can do. It offered beauty. Here and there, very late in the season now, others have joined the parade.  I am a dahlia guy with a tradition. Every year, I take the last bloom, sometimes close to Thanksgiving, cut and dry it. I put the dried flower next to my meditation altar, a reminder of summer in the fleeting sunshine of winter days. In the spring, when I plant my tubers, I take that dried flower and blend it into the new soil. Continuity. An offering, of sorts, in an unknown religion. A month ago, I thought circumstance had broken the chain of my ritual. Happily, I was wrong.

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1 Response to My Improbable Dahlia Habit

  1. Sally Blackwood says:

    Once again you hit it out of the ballpark by sharing what you love. Warms my heart to know others get to see your soft side once in awhile.


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