September 18, 2016

An Extraordinary Dahlia Show Kicks off a New Dahlia Society

It's official, the dahlia is back, and it's pretty safe to say, "in a giant way". If you haven't noticed, the dahlia is quickly becoming falls most sought after flower for weddings, garden displays and in containers. The color palettes are incredible, the forms - so diverse that there are dahlias for every style, from the tiniest 1 inch blooms of ponpoms and ball forms, to the giant 'dinner plate' types. Not to mention all of the tempting ones in-between - pointy cactus flowered forms, goofy-centered anemone types and all types of multicolored forms. A dahlia catalog can cause anxiety given the wide selection and choices one must make, but at least the don't break ones wallet - most tubers cost less than $5 so one can afford many (not to mention that by fall, one may have a bundle of tubers).

Last February I announced here that I wanted to start a local New England chapter of the American Dahlia Society, but I had little idea on how to accomplish this alone.  After a few posts on this blog, and Facebook,  within a day, (really - in just a few hours thanks to Facbook), a few enthusiasts came forward expressing interest in joining, and nearby chapters as well as the American Dahlia Society all came together to help start this brand new chapter. Successful doesn't even sum up how well this first show went - which was held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA this past weekend, but I will say this - many thanks to the Boylston Police department for helping to direct traffic and for setting up extra lanes for cars turning into the garden.

Exhibitors need to do a lot of homework and organizing just to get their blooms benched. Entry tags must have the proper classification and form listed in code (C for cactus, or IC for incurved cactus, etc) as well as a 4 digit number representing the color of the bloom. There are many distinctly different dahlia forms, as you can see here. They are the Pokemon of flowers - gotta have them all!

 Here we are, seven months later, and the new New England Dahlia Society (NEDS) which has about 30 paying members (you can join, here! And join us as we both learn about how to grow awesome dahlias, as well as how to redefine what a plant society is or can be, in 2017). 

There are many people to thank for not only making this even a tremendous success (the other local New England chapters in Connecticut (the Connecticut Dahlia Society) and on Cape Cod (the Provincetown Massachusetts Dahlia Society whose show will be the first weekend of Oct.) who came out to help up with so many of their fine dahlias, but also the folks at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, who first actually approached me asking (repeatedly!) if I might want to help start a dahlia society since there has been so much interest in this once maligned flower. They were right.

Everyone has their own favorite way of transporting flowers to a flower show. With blossoms this heavy, some needed reinforcement and staking to keep stems from snapping, while others just needed to keep straight or from bumping into each other during a long car ride.  We saw milk crates soda bottles, coolers and even paint cans with PVC pipe used.
The New England Dahlia Society is the newest chapter of the American Dahlia Society but it does have some historical connection to the Worcester County Horticultural Society, who is the parent org. of Tower Hill Botanic Garden. I was touched to meet a couple of expert growers from Newton, MA who shared with me that they used to exhibit dahlias back in the 1960's at Horticultural Hall in Worcester (at about the same time when I started exhibiting plants there as well). 

What really added to this show is collaboration - highly supportive dahlia enthusiasts from all across New England brought their blooms, something we will do as well, as Rhode Island, Connecticut and Provincetown Massachusetts all have their own shows. Iv'e learned that even thought ones plants may not bloom for the closest show, one can always drive the to a nearby chapter show the following week. 

The ongoing drought in the East has hit the dahlia growers hard, and even though the shows look full of beautiful blooms, most growers are not shy in sharing that the numbers being entered are down significantly. Dahlias require copious amounts of water in order to grow well, but one wouldn't guess this, seeing these full benches. I did speak to at least a dozen new growers though, who asked me why their dahlias weren't growing well or blooming well this year. All I can say is, 'you are not alone!', for even the local flower farms are finding dahlias challenging this year. 

Early arriving exhibitors prep their entries in a prep room at the botanic garden.

It's so nice to see this new dahlia chapter take off, but it didn't happen by itself. The officers and members really ran with it, under the leadership of experienced dahlia grower (and first president) Donna Lane, a past president of the Rhode Island Chapter, and a team of highly dedicated members, in particular, the show committee and core officers like Chau ho, Cheryl Monroe, Gayle Joseph, Saqib Zulfiqar and Joe Philip - (Im sure I am missing some names here!) but imagine this - in just a couple of months, this team held meetings, printed tags and forms, created a website and pulled off this show. WE also need to thank the support we received from the staff at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (thanks Kirsten!) and other members of the New England chapter who attended meetings and volunteered their time. 

Top of this thank you list though, does go to those experienced growers from the other chapters nearby, for without them, we would probably only have had about 50 dahlias (25 were Chou's!), which shows you how difficult dahlia growing was this dry summer. I only entered 3 blooms out of 80 or so plants in our garden. In two weeks, we may have many more (if we don't get a hard freeze!).

Exhibitors prepared their entries outdoors under a tent in the loading area, and in a prep kitchen designed for flower shows at  the botanic garden. We were so happy to see members come from as far away at southern Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Here are some images from the show.  

I did want to emphasize this if you are interested in growing the most beautiful dahlias, the best way to learn about the right and finest varieties to grow, is to attend a dahlia show and to either photograph the title cards or write down the name. Better yet, join your local chapter, for there is so much to learn. If you depend on the poly-bagged varieties imported from Holland in the spring or only know about ordering from Swan Island (who are a fine nursery, but other smaller growers actually offer more unique show-quality varieties which I would never have found if I didn't research winners at the ADS site and journals - now, I have a data base of photos from these local shows which definitely has changed how I am thinking about planning my garden next summer).  A visit to a dahlia show will blow your mind and it will definitely change how you think about dahlias.

I'm a little tired, so only captions from here on - the best news is, that we had many new members sign up, and I look forward to seeing everyone at upcoming meetings this fall and winter, as we share information and tips on how to grow and show dahlias like these, as well as on where to find some of the best ones.

Marjorie Schnerr, an well-known grower and exhibitor of dahlias from Connecticut as well as an officer with the American Dahlia Society was one of a few officers from the ADS who helped us get things going this year with this new chapter. She also was able to bench some of her own flowers, but perhaps didn't realize how far away the Lemonaia was from the parking lot at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. 

Ivan Bogdanov from Provincetown Massachusetts drove 3 hours to the show to both judge and to help us with any problems which we may have encounteedr with our first show. Nearby ADS local chapters really helped make this show a big hit, since most of us are still learning how to grow good show quality dahlias.  

This show would not have been the success it was without the support of our regional chapters of the American Dahlia Society. Ivan Bogdanov drove here from Provincetown, but other member such as Donna Paternostro, Nicholas Sterling (and his parents who are both well known growers), Marjorie Schnerr, Gayle Wentworth and Jesse Peterson to name a few, all got up early and drove here from either Rhode Island, Vermont or Connecticut.

Jesse Peterson, a top East Coast exhibitor of really incredibly large, giant or dinner plate or AA type dahlias brought so may of them, that I think he filled three benches! Look at the size of that stem! We all so grateful that he drove up here from Connecticut to enter his blooms.

Other expert dahlia society members from Connecticut helped as well. Here,  Gayle Wentworth (left)  advises Gayle Joseph (New England Chapter) discuss what blossoms should be prepared for the exhibition hall. 

New England Dahlia Society secretary Cheryl Monroe, clerks and documents the winners as the judges moved down the line. A lot of organization goes into putting on a show like this. Cheryl - you are awesome ( and you made the BEST apple crisp! Don't know how you do it!). 

the Giant AA dahlias, or 'dinner plate' types were clearly the fav's. These blossoms are massive, and were a hit with both adults as well as with the kids.

A new member brought this one in after reading about the show in the newspaper. Never be afraid or intimidated to bring a specimen in and enter it with any plant society, we all helped her complete her entry form and exhibit this beauty.

I heard from another member that Gayle Wentworth, an experienced grower from the Connecticut chapter, raised this lovely single from seed - apparently, the bees crossed this in her own garden! It was one of my favorites in the show.

This undeniably magnificent laciniated bloom of dahlia  'Show'N Tell' just may have been the most popular flower in the show, at least by social media standards. It was grown by Chao Ho, a talent grower who only started raising dahlias this year for exhibition, but whom already had moved on to win lots of blue ribbons. Can you believe that he grew this giant 11 inch flower in a container?

Some growers used these mesh bags to keep damaging insects off of the blossoms.  They are just organza gift bags available from many on-line sources used for wedding and shower favors. 

I have never seen so many people taking pictures with their mobile phones, but then again, these big blooms are irresistible.

At Tower Hill Botanic Garden,Saturday evening was also a milestone event, an anniversary fundraiser ball which brought in hundreds of donors and supporters treated to a cocktail party, dinner and even fireworks. Some staff members had to be there all day, and the change into evening wear later in the day. I wish I had an 'after' shot of Joanne Vierra (left), and Kathryn Acerb-Bachman (right), but I kind of liked these t-shirts too!

A selection of pink and purple dinner plate dahlias.

This coral cactus form is a beautiful color. 'Hollyhill Jeanette' is now on my wish list, too. It was also one of the tallest blooms there and clearly is a very sturdy grower. Dahlia shows are great places for folks to see what dahlias they might like to order from a specialist grower (rarely from the big-box retailers or large, Dutch bulb catalogs, since they focus on varieties which either ship well or store well.

Even flower farms contributed, this arrangement was one of two donated by FiveForks Farm.

'Verrone's Obsidian' is a very special nearly black single classified as an 'orchid' form by the American Dahlia Society - I mean, look at that asterisk-like symmetry, and yes - it is nearly black. What more could you want?

AC Ben is a strong grower in our area, an AA or Giant (dinner plate), we are growing a few in our garden but they should be in bloom in a few weeks. Dahlia growers know that this one is a 'good do-er'.
At the end of the show, all of the dahlias are sold to the public, to help offset the costs of putting on a show like this. A couple of dollars for a bunch of mixes flowers, or five dollars for a smile like this! A giant exhibition dahlia is pure magic.

At the end of the day, Jesse Peterson  received the most ribbons for his dahlias. So well deserved. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar - a talented member as well, as well as a fellow dahlia enthusiast and a talented photographer who is currently having an exhibition of his work at the Art and Frame Emporium, here, please visit if you live in central Massachusetts. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

Folks seemed pleased with our 'nicer-than-normal' ribbons! Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.
Some entrants were presented with  more than one rosette. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

A group shot at the end of Saturday, with members from regional New England Groups and our own.
Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

We created additional signage, explaining the different types of dahlia blooms since this was a public garden. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

Not all dahlias are big and showy. These ball types are just a beautiful, I think. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

Then, there are these. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

Just after benching blooms, many dahlias get rejected for one reason or another, so I made a few arrangements so that they could be placed around the botanic garden. Photo by Saqib Zulfiqar.

Just before we left for the day, Saqib took this photo of us in the field at tower hill. We were getting punchy at this point.  So tired but felt that we needed to end the weekend with a group shot. Not everyone was here to take down the show (and Saqib tried to jump into the shot but that one was blurry!). We call this our 'album shot', for obvious reasons.
Left to right: Joe Philip, Chau Ho, Me, Donna Lane and Cheryl Monroe.

If you re interesting in learning more about dahlias or in joining either the American Dahlia Society or the New England Dahlia Society (hey, we are super friendly and meet at each others houses every month or two), then check out our sites. Dahlia societies are perhaps the best place to learn how to grow dahlias well, and how to find really great varieties like these.


  1. Anonymous6:00 AM

    Hi Matt!

    What a great success, congratulations!

    If I lived in New England, I would join the NEDS!

    Best Greetings from Hamburg, Germany

    1. A garden could be a sort of garden sometimes grownup for ornamental functions, centering totally on the sorts of flowers made by the plants concerned.

  2. Congratulations on your great success! - Jenny

  3. Thank you so much for sharing these! I wasn't able to get to the show, so I was delighted to see what I missed. Great job!

  4. A garden could be a sort of garden sometimes grownup for ornamental functions, centering totally on the sorts of flowers made by the plants concerned.

  5. What is the name of the wavy purple and white dahlia that the new member exhibited?

  6. What is the name of the wavey purple and white dahlia that the new member exhibited?

    1. Anonymous8:29 AM

      The new member referred to brought Myrtle's Folly. I brought this one and its name is Good Golly Miss Molly.


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