In June, you may remember that I attended a peony workshop at Bear Creek Farm in Upstate New York. Well, imagine my delight when I discovered they also offer a dahlia workshop! Since it was my first year growing dahlias, and I had already completely fallen in love with them, I decided attending the workshop would be a great idea. So, last weekend I took a drive and spent the day learning about these unique flowers.
I wasn’t surprised that Bear Creek Farm, a cut flower farm in Stanfordville, NY, offered a dahlia workshop to coincide with their peony class. After all, while they cultivate over 100 varieties of flowers, their primary focus is on peonies and dahlias. In fact, they are one of the largest dahlia producers in the United States and even offer their award-winning dahlia tubers for sale online to home gardeners.
At the last workshop, I had been in complete awe of the 1500 peony plants blooming on the farm, and the dahlia workshop also didn’t disappoint. Our gracious host, Debra Kaye, once again gave us a tour of the fields, only this time, I stood speechless as I looked out on acres of blooming dahlias. Blooms in all sizes, shapes, and colors dotted the fields making for a gorgeous patchwork of colors. The fields contain over 3,000 tubers, and they harvest about 6,000 dahlia stems per day at the peak of the season. An experienced flower farm worker can cut 200 dahlia stems per hour! There is no way I’d be able to keep up with that pace; I’d be too tempted to stop and admire the beauty of each bloom.
Debra explained that this growing season has been challenging with its unpredictable weather. Soaring temperatures and record rainfall have dramatically affected the flowers, especially the dahlias that prefer cooler temperatures. Many of the plants were stunted and started blooming much later this year due to the higher temperatures. One of the dahlia varieties had just opened its first bloom on October 2nd. With the possibility of frost looming, the harvest season will be much shorter than usual.
Debra willingly shared her vast knowledge of growing dahlias with us and offered many tips on planting, growing, harvesting, and conditioning the plants. Some of the invaluable advice I came away with include:
- Keep the garden clean and as weed-free as possible to cut down on pests and diseases.
- Plant tubers horizontally six inches deep, leaving 12 to 18 inches between tubers. They prefer a pH of around 6.5. Make sure to plant them after the last frost date in a location with full sun. Once planted, do not water them until they start to come up and pinch the plants when they reach 12-16 inches tall and have at least three to four sets of leaves.
- Bear Creek Farm prefers to hill their dahlias rather than stake them, especially if the location doesn’t receive high winds. They recommend hilling the plants about 18 inches.
- The more you cut dahlia blooms, the more you will get. Dahlia stems are hollow, to cut use a sharp knife rather than clippers (which may crush the stem). Leave the stems long for optimal vase life (24 inches is ideal). Cut the stems just above a node where the leaf meets the stem and remove any additional buds to prevent them from taking energy away from the bloom.
- Once cut, dahlias stop blooming, so they must be cut when they are at their peak, and the flower is fully opened. Let the stems rest a short time before putting them in water. Then, to condition them, place them in a small amount of 160-180 degree water with a bit of sugar. Leave them to rest, and at the end of the day, add cold water.
- Wait until a hard freeze kills the plants, and then wait an additional two weeks before digging up your tubers, allowing them to get their winter skin for better storage.
After our tour and informational session, we had lunch and got to know the other workshop participants. Again, I met some wonderfully inspiring people as we shared our love of flowers. Next, we joined Taylor Patterson of Fox Fodder Farm for a flower arranging class. All of the gorgeous dahlias came directly from Bear Creek. Once again, I was like a kid in a candy store selecting the stems I wanted for my arrangement. Hydrangeas, zinnias, celosia, and of course dahlias, took center stage in my creation. We all oohed and ahhed at each other’s arrangements, each one unique.
As we prepared to leave the farm at the end of the workshop, Debra reminded us that if we took home one bit of advice from the day, it would be this: “Gardening is about us, not the plant. It’s about being in the beautiful outdoors and enjoying the environment. We nurture flowers to nurture ourselves. It’s important to remember that nature is imperfect and that it evolves. And there is beauty in imperfection and surprise. Think with nature, and you’ll be amazed at how as plants grow, so do we.” Such inspiring and wise words.
I left Bear Creek Farm feeling inspired, empowered, and connected. What a wonderful day. I was sad to go, but I know I’ll be back. After all, they will be offering a dahlia tuber overwintering workshop soon. And of course, I might have to attend.