Meet Kate Rowe, California's Doll of Dahlias
Right outside the tiny house in Petaluma, California, that Kate Rowe calls home are the best possible neighbors one could ask for: A staggering 7,500 dahlias. There's a reason they call Rowe the Doll of Dahlias, after all. As it turns out, being a dahlia farmer was actually a dream of hers, a dream that materialized into a flourishing and beautiful reality and a gorgeous flower farm, Aztec Dahlias. Rowe explains, "When I saw my first dahlia at a farmers' market in Occidental, it stopped me in my tracks and I was lost in a single bloom. I thought about it all week." Today, with the crucial hands-on help of co-owner Omar Duran, Rowe will grow a crop celebrating 400 varieties.
With impressive numbers like that, it's surprising when Rowe says that instead of becoming a large production farm, they simply "want to grow the experience side of the business for those who visit and walk the dahlia field." Their goal is to keep in sight what's most important to them: the beauty and sharing the experience of dahlias." To nurture this vision, Aztec Dahlias is adding an open space in the middle of the field that people can rent for events, gatherings, and workshops. When it's not being used, they'll have seating for visitors to enjoy.
When asked what's the one dahlia she gets giddy over, Rowe replies with a laugh, "What day is it?" As for the new must-have varieties, she has two: First, the Sweet Nathalie. "This isn't a new variety, but it is new to us, and it's blush, which is the most popular color—we can't keep enough in stock. The second dahlia she's gushing over right now is the generous-sized, gold-shimmering Baarn Bounty.
And why dahlias? Rowe says she loves "their quirky details and personality." She shares tips on how to cater to these blooming beauties so that they will become your favorites, too.
A Sunny Disposition
Rowe advises planting dahlias in full sun for maximum blooms. She says, "If you're in a hot area that doesn't cool down in the afternoon, then a little afternoon shade is okay."
"The most common mistake that kills a dahlia is overwatering it," Rowe warns. "And unless you have very well draining soil, the tubers will rot in standing water." Her suggestion is to let the ground dry out between the drinks. She also advises with some levity, "Get to know your plants like you know your friends. You know instantly if your friend is drunk or dehydrated. It's the same thing with dahlias. Hang out with your plants until they're your friends—then you'll know the difference."
"You can love them to death," says Rowe, who obviously could fall into this tricky trap as a true lover of these blossoms. "Not too much fertilizer and don't move them once they are growing."
Just a Pinch
"Top or pinch your plants in the center when they're small (about 10 inches, or when they have approximately three sets of leaves). This will encourage your plant to branch out, get stronger, and produce more blooms," says Rowe. "Once the plants are established and have higher leaf growth, remove the bottom 10 inches of leaves which is a popular bug environment, makes your plant look better, and allows your plant to focus energy on the healthy part of the plant."
Have a Plan Staked Out
"Many dahlias will fall over when the blooms get large or if there's wind so have a staking plan." A simple solution of hers is to stake early using a tomato cage or stake around the plant. Tie string or planters tape around the stake and the plant to hold it up.
When insect intruders come to ruin the petal party, Rowe suggests releasing beneficial bugs like ladybugs and lacewings. She also recommends using an all-natural, bee-safe product made from peppermint, soy oils, and citric acid called Plant Therapy. "My tip is to spray more often, not less, and earlier than you think. It's a lot easier to prevent a problem or take care of it when it starts, than after it takes over."
It's a Cut
While it may be difficult to cut blooms, it's actually necessary to promote blooming. And, of course, Rowe has to cut her blooms because she also sells cut flowers at her stand and the local farmers' markets along with plants and tubers. Her top harvesting tips? "Cut lower than you think. Dahlias bloom in threes, so cut all three (center flower and two side buds) at once, and cut down to the next "Y" in the stem." She explains that you'll have a longer stem, and the plant will start its next growth at the "Y" where you cut and the new growth will be lower and stronger.