FLORET FARM’S LATEST book, “Discovering Dahlias,” by Erin Benzakein, with Jill Jorgensen and Julie Chai, is a field guide to discovering summer’s most charismatic bloom. Dahlias have a love language all their own, and at some point, in most gardeners’ lives, it speaks to us all: young, old, men, women, sophisticated floral designers, passionate dahlia-society members and humble backyard enthusiasts.
Benzakein writes, “Of all the flowers you can grow, dahlias are some of the least demanding and most rewarding.” Which is saying something from a flower farmer whose crops run the seasons from early-spring bulbs to the last flashing foliage of autumn.
“Discovering Dahlias” begins with a primer on classification by type, both size and form. From diminutive pompons to enormous giants (of infamous dinner-plate fame), presenting in simple singles, formal Fibonacci spheres, blousy decorative and quilled cactus forms, the diversity of dahlias is staggering.
Don’t let the book’s beautiful soft imagery, photographed by Chris Benzakein (Floret Farm is a family affair), fool you. Extravagant pictures of fields of blooming dahlias, sample bouquets and buckets of blooms appear alongside instructional shots for planting, pruning and dealing with pests. “Discovering Dahlias” is a hardworking and generous guide to cultivating and successfully harvesting dahlias, whether you’re planting up fields or a small bed in the back garden.
After-season care, digging, storing and dividing tubers to increase your stock are all covered in detail. (Note to self: I’ve been doing it all wrong.) Erin Benzakein also shares tips for how to pinch back plants to increase blooms, and at what stage to harvest your flowers for the longest vase life. An entire chapter is devoted to designing with dahlias. “While dahlias are a wonderful addition to the garden, the best part of growing them is being able to harvest an abundance of their stunning blooms and bringing them indoors to enjoy in arrangements,” the farmer/florist writes.
In chapter four, Benzakein shares “Advanced Techniques,” with directions for how to take and root early-season cuttings to quickly increase your stock of plants. Hot tip: “Cutting grown plants generally come into flower two to four weeks earlier than those grown from tubers.” The author provides directions for growing dahlias from seed and possibly discovering a new-to-the-world bloom.
When Benzakein couldn’t find sources for the “blush, champagne, smoky peach and muddy raspberry” blooms her clients were asking for, she turned her efforts to hybridizing, with the help of generous mentors. The ambitious and perennially curious flower farmer added selecting parent plants, controlling pollination (either by hand or by bee), gathering ripe seed and growing out subsequent generations to her regular rounds of growing, harvesting and designing with dahlias.
A visually stunning “Variety Finder” at the back of the book that contains portraits of 360 varieties sorted into 11 color categories that mirror the remarkable rainbow dahlia field Floret Farm planted and photographed for the book makes my color-loving heart sing. I might not take up hybridizing, but I’m a sucker for a flat lay in the colors of summer.