HAMILTON – Helen Allen estimates that she spends more than 1,000 hours every year caring for her dahlia garden, and the vast majority of that time is “tedious busy work.”
“A lot of it is not gratifying,” she said. “But when they’re blooming or I’m looking at others, that’s when it’s all worth it.”
Helen and her husband Peter grow between 700 and 800 dahlias, of which there are at least 250 different varieties, every year at their Kangaroo House Gardens west of Hamilton. They sell the gorgeous blooms at the farmers market in late summer and fall, and in the spring and early summer they sell tubers to customers who want to try their luck at raising the colorful flowers.
The Allens’ garden next to their home is a profusion of brilliant, multicolored blossoms of all shapes, hues and sizes.
“There are a lot of people that grow dahlias in the Bitterroot, but I don’t think anyone grows nearly this many,” Peter said.
There are giant white blooms called “Ivory Palaces,” pink ones called “High Clown,” and multicolored red ones called “Harvey Koops.” One of Helen’s favorites is called “Castle Drive.”
“I just love the variations in the color, and the perfection of it,” she said. “It sells well at the market. My problem is if people ask me what are my favorites, I can’t answer that. That’s why I have 700 of them here, and almost 300 varieties.”
“It’s like asking what is your favorite child,” Peter said. “I have the same problem she does. She goes around to shows saying, ‘I like that one, I like that one,’ and I know the next year there will be more in the garden.”
Helen has no mercy, though, when she goes out to deadhead her dahlia garden. If the blooms aren’t up to her standards, she clips them so that new ones can grow. Just a slight discoloration at the tips of the petals is enough for her to see that the flower’s time has come.
“Even if I find one that’s malformed, I will cut it off early rather than have it waste energy on one that is never going to look good anyway,” she said. “Let it put the energy into a nice flower.”
The couple’s compost bin, which they call “rainbow compost,” looks to an untrained eye like a basket of beautiful flowers that could serve at any gala, but to Helen they all have imperfections.
“Even when I sell them at the market, people tell me they keep them for a week,” she said. “But for me, once they are cut, they last three days at most.”
As the days get shorter and fall nears, some of the colors in the flowers will intensify.
“They don’t like 90-plus-degree days, though,” Helen said. “They just stop growing.”
Dahlias originated in the mountains of Mexico, Helen said, but the modern forms of the plant have become almost unrecognizable to the ancient form due to selective growing and hybridization.
“The original plant doesn’t look anything like this,” she said. “It’s just a small flower. But it is constantly being bred all over the world. We had a friend who saw some in pots in Tibet.”
Many dahlias are hybrids of two different varieties. Some growers hybridize on purpose, some growers let bees cross-pollinate and let nature create the hybrids.
“That’s how you constantly get new ones,” Helen explained. “It can take three to eight years to decide if a plant is actually worth reproducing. People will come and grade the plants in what are called ‘trial gardens,’ so it’s complicated.”
Variegated dahlias have striped color, and laciniated dahlias have split tips. Some have water lily forms and others look like pompoms. The largest ones are classified by the American Dahlia Society, for which Helen serves as a judge, as “AA” dahlias, because they are more than 10 inches across.
“People used to call them dinner plate dahlias,” Peter said.
Many of Helen’s flowers, including her “Gloriosa” variety, have won blue ribbons at ADS-sanctioned shows, including this past week at the Southgate Mall in Missoula. She has to show her flowers to keep her judging status.
This year hasn’t been as good for growing dahlias as years past, the Allens say, due to a variety of possible factors.
“We got hit by the June 1 frost,” Helen said. “Some of them were above ground, and that set them back. The same thing happened last year on July 7. They say our last frost date is in late May, but not all the time. If the tip gets frozen, it can really set them back.”
Dahlia tubers are similar to a potato, but are really a tuberous root and only have “eyes” at the stem end.
In the fall, they leave the tubers in the ground a couple of weeks after the first freeze and then Peter digs them up. Helen then has to spend more than a month dividing them, labeling them and storing them in the garage in plastic bags.
During the winter, the tubers have to be kept in conditions with just the right amount of moisture and temperature, or they will sprout early or dry out and die.
Helen said she has always been interested in dahlias, but the hobby didn’t take root until later in life.
“I first discovered dahlias when I was a teenager and my mom and I went to the Fresno Fair and I saw the ball type or something, and I just loved them,” she said. “They were so perfect. But I didn’t grow any until somebody gave me some when we had a bed and breakfast on Orcas Island. I wasn’t even sure how to plant it.”
Fast forward several years, and the Allens are constantly getting calls and questions from people on the best way to grow the beautiful dahlias.
The couple will host open garden dates Wednesday, Sept. 4, and Sunday, Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to give people a chance to see the beautiful garden. Kangaroo House Gardens is located at 131 Deer Haven Drive. Carpooling is suggested as parking is limited.