Hundreds of blooms will compete for awards at annual Dahlia Show
At 84, Harry Nordstrom still grows hundreds of dahlias in his Bethel Park garden and favors big cactus-type blooms and the color yellow. His love of dahlias was sparked 60 years ago when a colleague at the phone company brought dahlia tubers from his garden to give away at work.
“The tubers looked like sweet potatoes, so I asked him if that's what they were,” Nordstrom says. “He said, ‘No, dahlias.' Well, I'd never heard of dahlias, but I was a farm boy who'd grown other things, like roses and mums, so I took them home and planted them. Once they bloomed, I was bitten.”
A juried exhibition featuring hundreds of cut dahlias will be on display Sept. 10 and 11 at the Greater Pittsburgh Dahlia Society's 79th annual Dahlia Show at Trax Farms in Finleyville. Growers will compete for dozens of awards, ranging from largest bloom to most perfect bloom in its class, according to Nordstrom, who is show chairman and an American Dahlia Society-accredited senior judge.
“Dahlias are classed by the size, shape and color of their bloom, and there's a big variety,” Nordstrom says. “Some have pointy petals like the cactus dahlia; some are round like ball and pom-pom dahlias, and some are flat. They range in size from golf ball to basketball to the kind people refer to as dinner-plate dahlias.”
Diane Kavchak's introduction to dahlias occured 28 years ago when she married a man who'd grown up with dahlias.
“I'd always loved roses, and then Bill planted dahlias and I fell in love with them — the beautiful colors, the different petal formations,” says Diane, a Dahlia Society board member. “The only negative is that dahlias don't have a fragrance, but that's good if you don't like overpowering scents, or for people who have allergies.”
Although the Kavchaks at one time grew 50 kinds of dahlias, they've recently had to downsize because of Bill's bad back.
“We just grow our favorites now,” says Bill, 79, whose father maintained a large dahlia garden and greenhouse in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh. “He sold dahlias from a little stand in front of the house. He'd put bouquets in buckets of water and a cigar box where you'd put your $2. It was the honor system.”
The Kavchaks sponsor the annual William Kavchak Sr. Memorial Award for the best club flower — a variety chosen every year by the Dahlia Society as the one they want members to grow for the exhibit. This year, it is a dark-pink ball variety called ‘Mary's Jomanda.'
Dahlias are as economical as they are beautiful because the tubers from which they grow can be stored all winter and replanted in spring. A tuber also can be divided into several smaller tubers, or cuttings, to develop new plants.
“One year, I wound up with 400 cuttings,” says Bill, with a chuckle. “I couldn't find enough people to give them to.”
Tubers typically are planted around Memorial Day or in early June. With plenty of sunshine and water, they will begin to put out blooms in mid-August and will continue to produce until the first frost, according to Bob Romano, who plans to enter the upcoming competition with 60 to 80 dahlias from the hundreds he grows in his Robinson yard.
Romano, 62, says he has racked up numerous awards in various competitions over the years and has hybridized at least 50 named varieties, several of which are registered and available for purchase all over the world.
The names are prefaced by Windhaven and include ‘Premier,' ‘Highlight,' ‘Blush,' ‘Victory' and ‘Quasar.'
“‘Highlight' might be my favorite,” Romano says. “It's an incurved cactus dahlia with 8-inch blooms, and it's the color of a yellow highlighter. It's a real standout.”
Romano was introduced to dahlias years ago by a neighbor whose plants he admired.
“He gave me some tubers, but I managed to lose most of them when I tried to store them over the winter, so he gave me more,” Romano says. “Eventually, he steered me toward the Dahlia Society and to their tuber auction in spring. I joined the society and obtained better tubers and got mentored by the group.”
Even with guidance, though, growing vibrant dahlias can be a matter of trial and error, he says. “What grows in one garden might not grow in someone else's because dahlias are sensitive to every micro-environment. You have to find out what works for you.”
Though dahlias will grow in almost any type of soil, fertilization is the key to dazzling blooms, says Romano, who works as a biochemist and mixes his own formulas. For the average grower, he recommends a 10-10-10 fertilizer applied by the handful to each plant every two weeks and thoroughly watered into the soil.
Gardeners who want to store dahlias for the next growing season should dig up their tubers toward the end of October, while the weather is still nice, says Romano. He suggests gently washing tubers and allowing them to air dry, and then cutting them into halves or fourths, removing the stem and being careful to include an eye and crown with each piece.Romano uses vermiculite to cover the tubers in containers in a cool basement or garage.
Because dahlias can grow to 5 or more feet tall, they must be fastened to stakes to stay upright, says Romano, who uses metal bars.
Late summer and early fall are when dahlias bring a visual treat.
“They look so bold and bright at this time of year and can be gorgeous in October,” Romano says. “An artist comes to my garden every year in fall to paint watercolors.”
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.