Dahlias destined to dazzle the neophyte

Flowers: An amazing variety of colors, shapes and sizes exist to please those new to this blossom.

In The Garden

March 24, 2002|By Kathryn McKenzie Nichols | Kathryn McKenzie Nichols,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Dahlias are dangerously easy to fall for. Just ask anyone who's been gardening during the past 400 years.

One of the more recent converts is Colleen Goff, who ended up starting her own dahlia farm, Elkhorn Gardens in Prunedale, Calif.

"I retired as a dress designer, and then I met my husband six years ago, who had five acres," said Goff.

In the course of experimenting with different plants there, she was swept off her feet by dahlias.

"I figured out I was in love with them," she said.

It's not hard to see why. Extravagant and exotic-looking, with a seemingly endless array of sizes, shapes and colors, dahlias can become an obsession.

Now, Elkhorn Gardens is selling several hundred types of dahlias via its Web site, and Goff is always looking for new and exclusive varieties.

Dahlias -- from the giant ones the size of a salad plate to the tiny, ball-like pompons -- are really just another American import that's traveled around the world and back again.

The original dahlias came from Mexico. They were discovered by 16th-century Spanish conquistadors, who weren't impressed by the blooms. When seeds and tubers were brought to Europe in the 1700s, breeders were more interested in the plants as a potential food source.

Luckily, some enterprising soul prevailed and found they were easy to cross and mingle, leading to all the strange and wonderful varieties now available.

Enthusiasts' groups and resources have likewise grown. There is an American Dahlia Society as well as any number of state organizations devoted to the delightful flower. Dahlia farms can be found in abundance as well, many with their own Web sites or paper catalogs, containing plentiful photos of their wares.

That's because looking at dahlias is almost as much fun as growing them.

Although dahlias can also be grown from seed, the plants do not always resemble their hybrid parents. Dahlias may also be rooted from cuttings or purchased as transplants throughout the growing season.

But if you seek the truly unusual in dahlias, contacting a dahlia farm is the only way to go.

Although the largest dahlias are most impressive, Goff notes that the biggest varieties (labeled A by the growers) put out fewer flowers, about six to 20 per season. The next largest size, B, will put out 15 to 30 blooms. The BB size and smaller are most prolific, with 30 to 120 blooms in a season, depending on the variety and conditions.

Dahlia shapes, or forms, are also quite diverse, with names like cactus, waterlily, ball, collarette and pompon among the 18 available. Colors, too, are varied and many, and include bicolor varieties like the red-and-white 'Candy Cane.'

And most of the cultivars have rather fascinating names, some with a touch of humor.

Some impressive giant varieties that Goff recommends are 'Show 'N' Tell,' 'Camano Messenger,' 'St. Croix' and 'Island Flame,' among others. In the B category, there's 'A La Mode,' 'Bella Bimba,' 'Misery Days' and 'My Wife,' just to name a few.

Interesting BB flowers include 'Alloway Candy,' 'Brookside Snowball,' 'Dark Magic,' 'Goldilocks' and 'Just Peachy.'

Goff said she trades varieties with growers around the world in an effort to find something new and different for her customers. While she handles the business end, her husband is in charge of irrigation at the farm.

"We wouldn't be as big as we are without him," she said.

She also helps customers choose which varieties will be best for them, explaining colors and forms, and giving them advice on growing them. Tips can also be found at her Web site, www.elkhorngardens.com.

Goff said most people don't know much about dahlias, but when they start in on them, it's easy to get hooked.

"If you're in the dahlia world, there's a lot going on," she said.

FOR MORE INFO

Elkhorn Gardens

831-663-1230 or www.elkhorngardens. com

American Dahlia Society

www.dahlia.org

The Gardener's Guide to Growing Dahlias by Gareth Rowlands (Timber Press, $29.95)

TIPS ON GROWING DAHLIAS

1. Order a few more tubers than you think you need, since not all will sprout.

2. If ordering directly from a grower, open the package immediately when you receive it. Put it in a cool area with the plastic bag open so air can ventilate tubers.

3. Pick a sunny location with well-drained soil for planting. Set the tuberous root on its side, with the eyes facing upward. Cover with 2 to 3 inches of soil.

4. Dahlia grower Colleen Goff said once you plant the tubers, don't water them until they start to sprout. Dahlias are sensitive to rot.

5. Water lightly until the plant is about 10 inches high. Pinch off the top. This will make it branch out and produce more blooms. At this point, the plant needs more water.

6. Dahlias' tuberous roots can be divided when they get large enough, and this should be done before they are planted in the spring. Goff said this is a tricky process, and it's best to get advice before dividing.

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