It's the very beginning of our biggest dahlia season ever on the farm and it seems worth mentioning that despite being an incredibly difficult flower to pull off in the south, dahlias are the reason we ditched veggies and became a flower farm.
A couple of years into the farm we took a brief trip out to Portland to visit my younger brother and while there, we went on a field trip to Sauvie Island to look at some farms. As we strolled around picking berries and soaking in the cool air, we found ourselves in a seemingly endless sea of dahlias. So many colors, sizes and magical shapes. We were mesmerized with all the permutations of beauty. I imagine it to be the closest experience to scuba diving on a thriving coral reef, you can find on land. We were truly blown away and although we knew it was an ill advised business move to make, we couldn't help it. We were seduced. We were going to grow dahlias and transition most of the farm to flowers.
It was ill advised for multiple reasons. One, dahlias get destroyed by the heat and the over abundance of insects the south is famous for. Two, they grow immensely tall here and subsequently get blown over and broken by high winds during storms. Three, many varieties won't even produce in our heat. And four, nobody was buying flowers at our farmers market at all. Every veggie farmer had mason jars filled with bouquets of flowers at every market, and every farmer went home with most of their unsold bouquets. Us included.
So, why did we switch? We had a hunch we could change the market if we went big. We thought if we could actually make dahlias work, and come hard enough with them that we could fill our booth, then people would be drawn in by the same magic that captivated us. If we were right, we could expand what the market provided and stop fighting our neighboring farmers for the same small piece of the pie. If we were right, we'd make a bigger pie for all the farmers at our market to eat from. We took a gamble on that hunch. We haven't turned back since.
It hasn't been easy. A lot of the traditional knowledge about how to grow dahlias hasn't really applied here. Once we discovered what didn't work for us through trial and error, we had to give up, or try something new. The trick with the latter approach is that time is not on your side. You get one chance every year. You can't try out a new theory next week or next month...you have to work for 6-8 months on the failing crop, suck it up, lick your wounds, and try again.. next year. So each iteration and each theory tested is quite costly in terms of time, energy and money. You have to be a little bit crazy, desperate, or bold to try and make a living farming on a small scale. Especially with unorthodox crops or techniques. We've had our share of being all 3, but so far so good. We still lose hundreds of dahlia plants every year and thousands of blooms grace our compost pile. A humongous mound constructed of almost perfect flowers, but for sunburn and the chewed up or browned petals left behind by the 6 legged ones that feast on our efforts. It's a bit sad to see so many flowers that just missed their potential to brighten up someone's life because they weren't good enough for market. But, compost is also a thing of beauty in that it becomes the life source for the next round of crops. It's the subterranean ecosystem that powers everything. I guess it's a metaphor for our own failures and near misses. They become a source of strength for our next efforts if we use them correctly.
When we were still sorting out how to successfully grow them, there'd be times of the year where we would lose 9 dahlias to insect damage for every one that we could bring to market. It was exhausting physically and emotionally. Through years of trial and error and a slew of demoralizing losses, we doggedly kept at it and slowly developed our current protocols which have made the beauty surpass the struggles. We now use a variety of beneficial insects instead of organic pesticides. We find that balance and acceptance of some loss is more successful than never ending war and an insistence upon winning every battle. An ecosystem that we bolster in our favor helps achieve this. We use Organza bags to protect the blooms from grasshoppers and other chewing insects. We've trialed countless varieties to determine which are actually heat tolerant, beautiful, long lasting, and productive. We are now starting to breed our own heat tolerant varieties thanks to Mandy's endless curiosity and enthusiasm. And for the Southern home gardner, the biggest lesson we've learned that we never heard or read before is.... plant late. Disregard that FOMO you experience while scrolling through Instagram and seeing all the gorgeous dahlias in June. This is not Washington. It doesn't work well here. Planting dahlias in Spring will likely bring heartache. A June planting yields happier plants that pay off handsomely in the Fall.
Since we sorted out our systems to maximize beauty and minimize loss, we are quite happy to have dahlias be a yearly companion on our farm. Their beauty is still compelling. At once regal and commanding, while simultaneously embodying playful glee, it's no wonder that everyone wants them as a focal flower in their wedding. There's a bit of magic in them. Dahlias undeniably changed our farm and our lives for the better and we have tremendous gratitude to them.
We are excited to be offering our second annual Dahlia CSA for weekly pickup at our farm store. We are also giddy to be initiating our dahlia shipping program! We avoided shipping them last year due to an industry wide belief that dahlias don't ship well. We did a variety of sample shipments to friends in the design world last year and again last week and we are pleased to say that every one of them arrived in excellent condition! The difference must be that our dahlias are so fresh and that they go direct from us to the customer instead of through multiple middlepersons. Dahlias have a short vase life, and you don't want to waste any of that in transit. So, we intend to open it up today and ship them priority overnight to get them to you as fast as possible! It'll be small offerings at first, as we are just starting to produce, but soon we'll have plenty more to share :)
Have a great weekend y'all!