Sunday, May 30, 2021

How the Dahlia Addiction Began

I’ve heard of exponential growth for many years, and studied it in school, but right now I’m really starting to understand it.

Two years ago, I impulsively bought a few dahlia tubers from Rachel Doutrich, the local flower expert, when she offered them for sale in a facebook group. I also got a few from my friend Pat in Springfield whose husband is another flower expert and has turned their backyard into an Italian courtyard that is a joy to behold during our writers' meetings.

I planted them all in the flower bed along the south side of the house. They grew and flourished, blooming profusely well into late summer. I fell in love with them. Dahlias are so lush, symmetrical, and resilient. They make beautiful bouquets, and the more you cut them, the more they bloom. I was hooked.

The last plant started blooming in September, when I was in Minnesota taking care of my dad. Amy sent me a picture. It gave me hope.

Rachel said to dig up the roots after the first frost. I did so, and found that each potato-like tuber I planted had morphed into a nest of tubers—at least ten per plant, like an oversized hand with gnarled fingers. A YouTube video taught me how to cut them apart and store them in bins of peat moss. Each one would make a whole new plant in the spring. I felt like I’d discovered a source of multiplying treasures.

In spring, when the first shoots were snaking out of the bins in the cold back pantry, I had our neighbor, Darrell, plow up the area where Amy had had a straw bale garden the year before. The soil was crumbly and moist and perfect. There I carefully planted about 35 tubers, and almost every one grew. 

The crucial thing with dahlias is separating the tubers carefully so each one has a viable node on the neck that will sprout in the spring. If it doesn’t have that node, it’s worthless, even though it might be nice and fat and smooth.

I find that recognizing those nodes is like figuring out what gender a little kitty is. I can examine closely, compare it with pictures online, even feel with my thumb for lumps, and still not be quite sure. Is there actually something there, or am I just imagining things? I pick it up again, hold it up to the light, and put on my bifocals. And I’m still not certain.

So I had lots of tubers last year that were in that not-quite-sure category. What if I tossed them on the compost pile and they turned out to be viable? That would be awful—a beautiful potential dahlia plant, wasted.

So I put all the not-sures in pots, and a surprising number sprouted.

I carefully planted and watered and babied them all.

You have to realize here that not only have I come to love dahlias, I am also a Yoder by birth and training. Our particular thread of Yoders loves free things, and we go absolutely crazy about free things that increase in number. Also, we feel sorry for any object that other people might throw away.

The dahlia-tuber situation slotted into my Yoder traits like the perfect tiny gears in a fine watch, or, to be honest, like molecules of an opioid into the hungry cells of an addict. One tuber growing not only into a beautiful plant with dozens of flowers, but also into a massive chunk of tubers that would fill a whole flower bed the next spring! This was heady, breathtaking, addicting!

Last fall, after the first frost, I cut the brown stalks, many of them the size of small tree trunks, and I began to dig. The fertile soil had grown massive clumps of tubers that took all my strength to heave out of the ground. I hosed off the mud and lined them up on the grass.

I used a small chain saw to cut the stalks.
They were that big.

The weather was cold and wet, and my fingers grew numb from the spray from the hose. The clumps accumulated into a shocking and delightful harvest.

The online experts said I can wait until spring to cut them apart. Wonderful. Steven bought me two 50-pound bags of peat moss. I buried the enormous clumps in peat moss in big Rubbermaid tubs and stored them in the chicken shed, where they rested in peace all winter long.

A few weeks ago, Rachel told me it’s warm enough to start planting. I opened the totes in the shed. A forest of shocking pale shoots greeted me, desperately rising above the peat moss, seeking light and air.

I felt so sorry for them.

Matt hauled the tubs to the porch. I got a good pair of plant snips and a sharp knife. I began to pull clumps out of the dirt, ripping apart the masses of roots that had grown all around, then examining, cutting, and sorting.

I had dahlia tubers everywhere. I filled baskets, ice cream buckets, and plastic organizers.

These were for sure sprouting, these were definitely infertile, and these others were as ambiguous as a small kitten's backside.

Darrell came by and tilled up a big patch of ground. Filled with joy, I planted 114 dahlias.

It hardly made a dent: I had hundreds left over, and at that point I realized I might be in a little over my head, that this blessing was going to keep multiplying, and it might completely take over my life. 

I told my kids how this project had expanded in only two years, and Ben calculated that they were increasing by a factor of 3.5, and if I stayed on this path, in five years I’d have 10,000 plants, and in ten years I’d have 3 million.

But I am a Yoder. Nothing must be wasted.

Amy decided to have a garage sale, since she’s moving to Thailand soon. Hey! Maybe I could sell some tubers there!

I didn’t realize until I was at least a year into this venture that dahlia people are all about specific names of different species. “Foxy Lady” and “General Sherman” and so on. It seemed a bit pretentious, like people who are into fine wines or fancy dog breeds. I had completely lost track of any specific titles, and all I had managed to document was the colors for maybe a third of my tubers. White. Peach. Purple. The rest had gotten separated from any labels I had tried to tie on. 

So, would people buy them if they didn’t have names? In addition to being frugal, we Yoders are also resourceful. I decided to take a page from my grandma’s book. When she was a teenager, she and her sister Katie picked cherries off their tree and took them to Portland to sell door to door. The housewives all wanted to know what kind they were, and the girls had no idea. Finally Katie and Anna ( my grandma) had a little consultation and decided to say the cherries were Black Pippins. Then they sold them all.

All right then. I made signs. “White Knight.” “Purgundy Pride.” “Peachy Princess.” And so on. On each one, I included a photo of the flower.

A number of tubers sold.

Then who should come by at the end of the sale but Rachel, the expert herself? She looked at my tubers and picked out a few that didn’t have nodes, which was kind of horrifying. I hope no one bought non-viable tubers. And then Rachel looked at my signs.

I waited nervously. Would I get by with this, or not?

“White Knight? But that looks like . . . Wait. Purgundy Pride??” And she started laughing. “Did you just make these up?”

“Yes?” I squeaked.

She laughed some more. Then she told me the actual names of these specimens, since I had originally bought them from her, and I wrote them down. So now I know.

Later, Rachel texted me that she was still laughing.

I still have countless ambiguous roots and dozens of viable, sprouting tubers. Last night I packaged up two big envelopes of them to send to two Yoder family members who had expressed a bit of interest. I realize that with our genes, it’s like giving the first shot of cocaine to a vulnerable victim, but what can I do? The tubers are sprouting, and they can’t go to waste.

Tomorrow I’ll give some to Simone, Darrell’s wife. 

Paul just pointed out to me that there’s an area along the fence that's not shaded where I could plant some more, if I like. He’s a classic enabler. I love that about him.

I am looking forward to endless supplies of gorgeous symmetrical blooms in late summer. I am not going to think about digging up over a hundred clumps of tubers in the fall, or what I will do with them all, or how I will keep myself from having 3,000,000 clumps to dig up, ten years hence.

As Emily says, that’s a problem for future me. Right now, I need to figure out which remaining tubers on the porch actually have nodes and who I can give them to so they can get hooked as well.

In ten or fifteen years, the Willamette Valley should be full of blazing dahlias and addicted gardeners, because that is the magic of exponential growth.

The dahlias bloomed right through the forest fire season.
The smoke seemed to kill off all the bugs.


  1. Oh Dorcas, I am still laughing.

  2. Earlier it was/(is?) fabric. Now it's dahlias. These are harmless addictions, especially when you compare them with opioids. --Linda

    1. Yes, still addicted to fabric. I'll have to remember that--harmless compared to opiods!

  3. Oh it's delightful to enjoy a good belly laugh first thing in the morning! I had no idea of the properties of dahlias. I look forward to visiting Oregon in the future when it's covered in beautiful blooms!

  4. YES, YES, and YES! I laughed at ALL of it! It IS ME precisely!!!

  5. Oh dear, what did I get myself into? This year, for the first time ever, I planted dahlias... check back in 5 years to see whether our farm is overrun with dahlias! :D

  6. I planted my first dahlias this year and already have beautiful flowers. I may get addicted too 😁

  7. Because of this post, I ordered Dahlias finally! So excited and can only hope that mine will produce as well as yours.

  8. I have been thinking of dahlia growing as well because if a gardener on YouTube who says they are easy to you say they are easy too! Hmmmm... maybe if I could get them for freeeee? 😄

    1. I think the rest of mine are spoken for but surely there's someone like me in your neighborhood!

  9. Why do I want to go buy some dahlias now?? 😂

  10. If only we lived closer, I'd love to plant some too! :-)

    1. Maybe there's a kindred spirit in your neighborhood with extras for sale!

  11. When I read this it reminded me of a meme I saw of FB recently, but unfortunately I couldn't find it to put here, but basically it was like a group of folks with a cheerleader at the front and the cheer went:

    What are We?

    What do we want?
    All the plants!!!

    Where will we put them?
    We don't know!!!

    So me.

    Shannon Combs

  12. You are essentially the Miss Rumphius of the Northwest! If you don't know Miss Rumphius, oh please please look up her book by Barbara Cooney. You will get on like old pals.

  13. You've given me hope. I've just moved to Idaho and have a blank slate of a yard....all dirt and rocks. Dahlias could give me hope until we have grass in the fall!!!! I had them in southern Virginia, and never knew to dig them up. They did come back sparingly each year. But I'm inspired to try them the right way!!

  14. This made my day! My husband does not seem to understand my thing of not throwing away flower plants! I am laughing , the things we flower lovers get into! I think I need some dalias! Naomi Yoder

  15. Dorcas, this is SO funny! I loved reading your story. :)