Dahlia’s popularity is driven by climate, variety and ease of care

Dahlia’s popularity is driven by climate, variety and ease of care

When the Whatcom County Dahlia Association hosts its annual tuber sale, eager customers act as if they’re attending a Black Friday sale and the locally grown tubers are big-screen TVs sold for half price.

“They get picked very quickly, so you want them to show up as soon as possible,” admitted WCDS President Sandy Pauley, a longtime member of the gardening club dedicated to the popular perennials.

Polly, who has collaborated with dahlia growers and master gardeners from across the region and from as far away as Mexico, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, said the plant is a “global ambassador,” in part because of its long flowering season. They grow especially well in the Pacific Northwest, she said, because of the sunny summers, cool nights and lack of storms like those in the Midwest that destroy the flowers.

Fortunately, the WCDS Dahlia show September 9-10 at Bloedel Donovan won’t have the same frenetic energy as the April sales.

Instead, members will bring the season’s best flowers to the show to be judged. The public can then view the cut flowers and take notes on their favorite flowers – which they can try to collect when the next tuber sale comes around.

One thing Polly said she likes about dahlias is that they come in many different sizes, from 2 inches to “giants” up to 10 inches in diameter. Her current favorite is water lily-style dahlias. In the next show you will see them all.

Although she will be busy during the event, Polly, 77, said she hopes to bring about 30 vases of flowers from her and her husband Stephen’s 5-acre farm, Birch Bay Dahlias.

Multiple species of dahlias bloom in summer at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale. (Ron Good/Cascadia Daily News)

Polly, who has a background in floriculture, said she first became fascinated with dahlias after moving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Seattle in 1991.

In Nebraska, flowers known for their long blooming seasons and abundant flowers were scarce and served as “food for grasshoppers.” In Seattle, the story was different.

A variety of healthy dahlias planted by the previous owners of the house where she and Stephen lived piqued her interest. Trying to understand how to grow them, the couple attended the next Northwest Flower & Garden Festival in Seattle Center and became members of the Puget Sound Dahlia Society.

During the 25 years they were members of the Puget Sound Club, the Polley family learned not only how to grow dahlias, but also how to hybridize them.

After retiring, they moved to Sumas and purchased property about 25 miles from their home to grow dahlias, choosing a site that had previously been pasture, was wide open and received full sun.

Pauley said this was an important factor when it came to choosing a property. One key tip she shares is that dahlias need at least six hours of full sun per day.

When asked for more helpful hints, Pauly said if you know how to grow vegetables, the care is about the same.

“The care and fertilization of dahlias and roses is quite similar, too,” she said. “It’s a really easy plant to grow. You need fertile soil, consistent moisture and lots of sunshine.

picture Sandy Polley, president of the Whatcom County Dahlia Association, holds a vase of a waterlily variety of dahlias that she and her husband grew at Birch Bay Dahlias. They are introductions to hybrid flowers including Sandia Issa (white), Sandia Gold (yellow) and Sandia Clear (dark red). See them at the Society’s Dahlia Show September 9-10 at the Bloedel Donovan Society Building. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Pauley)

At the monthly Whatcom County Dahlia Association meetings from February through November, dahlia growers of all levels show up to share information. Even those who are not members are welcome to attend and collect relevant details.

Polley said they usually focus on what to do with the dahlias in the month they meet, but other topics include how to store the tubers, how to display the flowers and how to keep them thriving throughout the season.

For September, Pulley said killing dahlias is key. Doing so will extend the flowering season, which usually lasts until the first frost. This is also the month to reduce irrigation.

“You want the energy that the plant uses to go toward the tuber,” Pauley said. “You’ll probably dig it up in a couple of months to store it over the winter.”

At Birch Bay Dahlias, the Boleys sell tubers from the plants they grow and also donate about 1,000 to the April tuber sale. They plan to continue doing so as long as they are able.

“When I go to the farm, it’s a cleansing of the soul,” Polly said. “All your worries kind of go away when you go out and work on dahlias. It’s like therapy.”

picture A honey bee comes to land on flowering dahlia “poo” plants at Hovander Homestead Park near Ferndale. (Ron Good/Cascadia Daily News)

Dahlia days

What: WCDL Dahlia Show
when: Noon to 4 p.m., September 9-10
where: Bloedel Donovan Park, 2114 Electric Street.
it costs: Free and open to the public
information: Facebook group

What: Dahlia Day with Whatcom County Master Gardeners
when: From 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, September 23
where: Hovander Homestead Park, 5299 Nielsen Road, Ferndale
it costs: Free admission. Packages will be sold
more: Check out over 75 varieties of dahlia and seedling garden. Master gardeners will answer questions, demonstrate how to divide tubers, and offer visitors assistance in choosing a bouquet to take home.
Information: whatcommgf.org.

What: Whatcom County Dahlia Association Growers Information Meeting
Wchicken: 7 to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, September 5, October 10, and November 7
where: Laurel Grange, 6172 Meridian Guide, Linden
it costs: Free entry and open to the public; Annual membership fee is $10
more: Growers with varying levels of experience meet on the first Tuesday of most months to talk about dahlias. Demonstrations often occur.

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