Flower farmer Erin Benzakein creates show-stopping arrangements with a garden favourite.
Of all the flowers I’ve ever grown, dahlias are my favourite. These treasures are one of the most well-loved and widely grown flowers for cutting because they come in a dazzling rainbow of colours, they produce an abundance of blooms from midsummer into autumn, and the range of shapes and sizes available is staggering.
In addition to their being such a popular cut flower, their incredible ability to multiply over the course of a growing season is unmatched – you can start with a single tuber or rooted cutting, and by season’s end be digging a full clump that contains three to 10 babies from the original plant. Similar to a sourdough starter, once you have it – and as long as you take care of it – you’ll have a steady supply to share with others and plant for yourself every season.
Many years ago, when I was just starting to grow cut flowers, I got a phone call from a local grower telling me to load up the kids and my shovel and head over to her house. It was a crisp morning just after our first autumn frost, and I found her digging up dahlias. At the time, I knew very little about these bloomers, only that I admired them every time I visited her garden.
We worked through the morning, lifting her massive clumps of tubers, splitting off a chunk of each variety for me to take home to my garden. Her generosity was my first real taste of just how giving and passionate flower people are. When I offered to pay her or pull weeds in exchange for the station wagon full of tubers she had so generously shared, she said she didn’t want anything in return. Her one request was that I pass along some of the abundance to another gardener in need once my garden was established.
Since that fateful day many years ago, my dahlia garden has grown beyond anything I ever imagined. This past season we grew nearly 800 unique varieties and over 18,000 plants in total – a far cry from a station wagon full of muddy tubers. One thing I’ve learnt when it comes to dahlias is that once you’ve been bitten by the bug, there’s no going back. They have a strangely magical quality that somehow ends up taking over your life in the most fun and beautiful way. But the best part of all is having the opportunity at the end of each season to pass their magic on to others.
For me, there’s no better way to welcome autumn than filling a giant crock with fruiting branches, golden leaves and my favorite sunset-toned dahlias. I find dahlias are at their peak and I take every opportunity to soak up their magic before they’re gone for the year. The cooler temperatures and decreasing daylight trigger them to start changing colour, and before I know it, the whole landscape is a riot of brilliant hues.
Because I was using such heavy ingredients in this display, it was important to choose a sturdy vase that wouldn’t tip over. I filled an old brown crock I found at an antique store with half a dozen fruit-laden crabapple branches, which I removed the leaves from to expose the fruit. Then I added brilliantly coloured maple leaves and, once the framework was established, I placed a number of large nodding blooms of ‘Sierra Glow’ dahlias around the edge making sure to turn the flower heads so they weren’t all facing forward. Next, I slipped in spiky blooms of ‘Bed Head’ dahlias and threaded in smaller varieties to fill the spaces. I finished by sprinkling miniature rose hips and golden currant foliage into all the empty cracks to add a sparkling quality.
All hail the queen
By far the most notable of all the dahlias I’ve grown is ‘Café au Lait’. She is lovingly referred to as the queen of dahlias, and it’s easy to see why she has such a loyal and wide-reaching fan club. Many of the dinner plate-size dahlias can be fragile and a little difficult to work with – ‘Café au Lait’, however, if pinched early on, produces long, strong stems that hold up really well in large arrangements.
Working with dinner plate varieties can be intimidating because of their massive size. I find the best approach is to go all in and embrace their over- the-top nature. For this arrangement, I limited the number of ingredients and let the ‘Café au Lait’ blooms take centre stage. I filled a large metal bucket with three different kinds of antique hydrangeas to create a pillowy nest for the dahlias. I then threaded in some large branching stems of pokeweed to add texture and scale to the display. The pink stems on the berried branches and the blush flowery sprays helped carry colour throughout.
After the base was well established, I nestled the ‘Café au Lait’ in the hydrangea pillow, making sure to twist and turn the flower heads so that they weren’t all facing forward, because I think the backs and sides are just as beautiful. To help break up the domed shape of this bouquet, I threaded in long, wiry stems of ‘Honka Fragile’ dahlias and used their star-shaped blooms to contrast the softness of the other flowers. I also added the beautiful common weed, sheep’s sorrel, which has great texture and the perfect hint of blush to complement the other ingredients.
Edited extract from Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias by Erin Benzakein, photos by Chris Benzakein