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Dahlia popularity driven by climate, variety and easy care

From tuber sales to an annual show, this perennial is in big demand

Visitors stroll through the dahlia garden at Hovander Homestead County Park
Visitors stroll through the dahlia garden at Hovander Homestead County Park
By Amy Kepferle Staff Reporter

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

“It gets picked over pretty quickly, so you need to show up as early as possible,” acknowledged WCDS President Sandy Boley, a longtime member of the gardening club dedicated to the popular perennial.

Boley, who has collaborated with dahlia-growers and Master Gardeners from around the region and as far away as Mexico, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, said the plant is a “worldwide ambassador,” in part because of its long blooming season. It grows particularly well in the Pacific Northwest, she said, because of our sunny summers, cool nights, and lack of storms like those in the Midwest that damage blooms.

Luckily, the WCDS Dahlia Show taking place Sept. 9–10 at Bloedel Donovan won’t have the same frenzied energy as the April sale. 

Instead, members will be bringing their best blooms of the season to the show to be judged. The public can subsequently peruse the cut flowers and make notes about their favorites — which they can attempt to scoop up when the next tuber sale comes around. 

One of the things Boley said she loves about dahlias is they have so many different sizes, from 2 inches up to “giants” that are as wide as 10 inches in diameter. Her current favorite is waterlily style dahlias. At the upcoming show, you’ll see them all.

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

photo  Multiple varieties of dahlias are in full summer bloom at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)  

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

In Nebraska, the flowers known for their long blooming season and bounteous flowers were puny and acted as “food for grasshoppers.” In Seattle, it was a different story. 

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

In the 25 years they were members of the Puget Sound club, the Boleys 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 house to grow dahlias, picking a site that had formerly been a pasture, was wide open and received full sun. 

This was an important factor when it came to choosing the property, Boley said. One of the main tips she shares is that dahlias need a minimum of six hours of full sun a day. 

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

“The care and fertilization for dahlias and roses are also quite similar,” she said. “They’re really a pretty easy plant to grow. You need fertile soil, consistent moisture and lots of sun.” 

photo  Sandy Boley, president of the Whatcom County Dahlia Society, holds a vase of waterlily types of dahlias she and her husband grew at Birch Bay Dahlias. They are introductions to hybridized flowers including Sandia Isa (white), Sandia Gold (yellow) and Sandia Claire (dark red). See them at the society’s Dahlia Show Sept. 9–10 at Bloedel Donovan community building. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Boley)  

At monthly Whatcom County Dahlia Society meetings from February to November, all levels of dahlia growers show up to share information. Even those who aren’t members are welcome to attend and glean pertinent details.

Boley said they typically focus on what should be done with dahlias in the month they’re meeting, but other topics include how to store the tubers, how to show the flowers and how to keep them flourishing throughout the season. 

For the month of September, Boley said deadheading dahlias is key. By doing so, you’ll be extending the blooming season, which typically lasts until the first frost. This is also the month to reduce the amount of watering.  

“You want the energy the plant is taking to be going toward the tuber,” Boley said. “You’ll most likely be digging them up in a couple of months to store through the winter.”

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

“When I pull up to the farm, it’s soul-cleansing,” Boley said. “All your worries kind of disappear when you get out there working in the dahlias. It’s like therapy.” 

photo  A honey bee comes in for a landing on blooming dahlia “Poo” at Hovander Homestead Park near Ferndale. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)  


What: WCDL Dahlia Show
When: Noon to 4 p.m., Sept. 9–10
Where: Bloedel Donovan Park, 2114 Electric Ave.
Cost: Free and open to the public
Info: Facebook group

What: Dahlia Day with Whatcom County Master Gardeners
When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 23
Where: Hovander Homestead Park, 5299 Nielsen Road, Ferndale
Cost: Entry is free; bouquets will be sold
More: Check out more than 75 dahlia varieties and a seedling garden. Master Gardeners will answer questions, demonstrate how to divide tubers and offer assistance to visitors in selecting a bouquet to take home.

What: Whatcom County Dahlia Society Informative Growers Meeting
When: 7–8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, Oct. 10 and Nov. 7
Where: Laurel Grange, 6172 Guide Meridian, Lynden
Cost: Entry is free and open to the public; annual membership fees are $10
More: Growers of varying levels of experience gather the first Tuesday of most months to talk about dahlias. Demonstrations often take place.

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