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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dahlia Delighted…

Bucket of beautiesHoliday lights are up in the Valley. Folks have fir trees on their mind these days, not dahlias…such a strange time of the year to be talking about dahlias. Perhaps this post will remind me to cut my dahlia stalks and cover the hills with the leaves piled between the rows before a sudden cold wave seizes the garden in permafrost.

In my opinion if dahlias had fragrance, they would be the perfect flower. Dahlia blossoms provide a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors. Just one tuber yields a prodigious amount of flowers, blossoms that just keep coming until the first frost. Plant one solitary bulb and at season’s end you have enough for an entire row. In years past we have had dahlia bouquets on the table among the platters of Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes.

My dalliance with dahlias began several years ago. In town on Kelsey Street--and neighbor to my old beekeeping friend Lester Broughton--resided a serious dahlia fancier. I can’t remember the old gentleman’s name…just knew him as “Stub,” a nickname he appropriated, I’m certain, because of his height. In short (as was he), he lived up to his name. Up to it only—no taller. Stub had a passion for dahlias. His backyard was a dahlia delight. Stub knew his dahlias, too, and when you walked with him among his flower beds, you could feel his passion, his love for each variety. He would gently catch a stem between his stubby fingers, tilt the flower for display, and relate the dahlia’s entire story, a floral biography with Stub its biographer.

That was a good many years ago; memories grow fuzzy, but I believe Stub cultivated seven separate patches of dahlias: one for common, medium-sized dahlias in a variety of colors; another plot of what he called “water lily” dahlias, broad petaled blooms that could float in any Valley flood; there were the “poms,” with their ball-shaped, compact blossoms; spider varieties with their long, slender petals; the “dinner plate dahlias,” blooms huge enough for a child to hide his head behind; the miniatures, almost clover-sized poms that bloomed like perky buttons; and the “experimental” plot, dahlias Stub grew from seed or grafted stock. Because of his keen eye for dahlia perfection, Stub was an official judge at dahlia shows. He would point out a certain delightful dahlia and say, “You need to plant at least three hills of that one to make a prizewinning display at a show.”

While the date of my wedding anniversary—or even my own birthday—fades in and out of memory, for some reason I always remember October 3; that was the day Stub began digging his dahlia tubers each fall. Three days it took him, he told me, to dig the tubers from all the plots. Stub would separate the clusters, choose the best bulbs of the clump, select the ones with the most promising eyes and carefully seal each tuber in a zip-loc bag with name and variety neatly printed on the label. Then each bulb was sandwiched with the others in a cardboard box and stored until spring in a shed in which Stub placed a milk house heater to keep his treasures from freezing. Infectious his passion was; any gardener couldn’t help but be enthused.

Thanks to Stub I’m always looking to brighten up my own dahlia patch. Back in August I posted about a dahlia I admired among the dahlia rows in the Cambodians’ flower fields (“Lusting in the Valley: Thou Shalt not Covet Anything Belonging to Another Man…,” 8/24).Coveted color For some strange reason my dahlia plot has evolved into cool colors: whites (far too many), lavenders and purples, pinks, a few pale yellows…but nothing “hot” red or orange to dazzle the eye; nothing to cry out for notice (should, by chance, an impressionist painter happen by). Now if I could just mix two or three tubers of that fiery little number in among the anemic blooms and pump up the patch a bit, the backyard would be a richer color for it. If you read The Ripple’s August post, you know I tried to exchange colors with the Cambodian flower farmer, but he seemed not the least interested in a dahlia trade. He did leave me room for hope, however: “You come by sometime when we dig. I give you two, maybe three.”

It is later. And I am pedaling by. Gladys, scofflaw that she is, ran the stop sign as usual, and we swung onto the upper Loop Road where I noticed a white box truck parked on the shoulder. The rear door was open, revealing a compartment piled to the roof with plastic buckets. On the bed by the tailgate several buckets bulged with tubers as if they were dahlia yams. There was a flurry of activity in the dahlia fields: the fall tuber harvest was in full swing. Two Cambodian women were at work in the rows. One seemed to be an onlooker, there caring for a young child—or babysitting for the other while her mother labored down the rows.Peek a Boo

I called out to the young woman at work digging up the clusters, harvesting them into the buckets. She smiled and waved. I wondered if she was one of the two women whose van I rescued from the Valley mud a year ago. I wasn’t sure…there’s a striking resemblance among young Asian women: they all pretty much look alike to me. She was very friendly, her English fairly good. “Could I have a few bulbs?” I asked her. She ceased work, immediately marched toward me, and asked which variety I wanted.

Now when the dahlias were in bloom, I had counted and recounted the rows, so I knew exactly where the object of my desire grew. I directed her to that row. Machete and potato fork in hand, she trotted to row six and laid into those canes like she was chopping stir fry. (And the entire time she did it with a cellphone clamped between her ear and shoulder!) I got the feeling she would have dug up the entire field and shared it with me. The machete and potato fork made quick work of each hill, and in no time she had unearthed three large clumps and began separating the tubers, inspecting each for promising bud nodes. Dahlia delighted

What better opportunity than now, I thought, to ask someone who tends acres of dahlias how they overwinter theirs. I had tried Stub’s method and failed; in the spring the zip-loc bags were either filled with mush and mold or contained some shriveled looking, twisty thing. I’ve stashed them in the crawlspace under the house. By spring the clusters were heaps of mold. In the shed, same results. Now I just leave them in the ground, heavily mulched, until spring. “You keep in garage; they just fine,” I’m told. The garage??? Who would have thought….

I watched her break into each hill with that potato fork. The clumps surfaced quickly, each intact, no tubers sliced in half as always happens with me and my shovel technique. A potato fork??? Who would have thought….

Now my dahlia quest is complete; I have my fire dahlias, a full baker’s dozen, slumbering in a bucket safely in the garage, and like the phoenix poised to rise from its ashes, each awaits spring. (As a bulb exchange appeared out of the question, I returned with a pound jar of Tualco Valley knotweed honey to show my thanks.) Dahlia Miss

After all, this is the season of gifts and giving, isn’t it? Last year I gifted my wife with a refurbished heirloom garden hoe. A potato fork? Hmmmmm… now it certainly would be nice to have one of those.

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