Season 2 • Episode 16 - August 31, 2023

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The late summer garden is the stage for one of the most spectacular blooms of the year. The dahlia is a one-of-a-kind bloom that gardeners love to have in their garden. To learn more about this versatile flowering plant we stopped by the largest grower of dahlias in the United States, Swan Island Dahlias (800-410-6540) in Canby, and talked with co-owner Heather Schloe.

First, the name, Swan Island Dahlias. Yes, there is a tie to Swan Island in Portland, Oregon. The original business was operated out of an office on Swan Island by the McCarter family starting in 1927. They grew their dahlias originally in the Sellwood area of Portland and eventually moved to Canby. Heather’s grandfather, Nick Gitts, was a dairy farmer who grew dahlias as a hobby and opened a small stand to sell dahlias along with running the dairy farm. In 1963 the McCarter’s decided to sell the flower business and Nick Senior, now a lover of dahlias, purchased it. Now Heather and her father Nick Junior, run the business. The growing conditions in Canby are wonderful and it was easier in the early days to just keep the business name, though the location had changed. The small growing area has expanded over the years to cover nearly 40 acres. On that, they produce over 375 varieties of dahlias that they sell at the farm and through their website.


In the early years, the annual festival was only a two weekend event. It featured a large cut flower display that had to be rebuilt every week with new flowers. However, COVID-19 forced a change in the festival. No longer could they have a crowded area of floral displays, but instead they could open the fields for more than just two weekends. Now the annual festival has expanded to two months! Starting at the beginning of August until the end of September, you can stop by five days a week (they are closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and enjoy many different events. Plus, there is still free admission and free parking. You can stroll through the fields and enjoy over 370 dahlia varieties. The benefit of being open for two months is that you don’t have to deal with the big crowds anymore.

Some of the other benefits include more activities on the farm. They now have a brand new expanded gift shop, daily food carts, live music on the weekends and the opportunity to purchase fresh cut dahlias to take home. There are also a lot of classes that cover various topics including dahlia care, art projects, designing floral displays, health and beauty topics, and much more. Check out their Facebook page and website for details, since most of these classes require pre-registration.


After the break we returned to talk about how they also grow and breed new dahlia varieties. There are many styles of dahlia blooms, including pom pon, orchid, single, collarette, cactus, decorative, Waterlily, and laciniated. The Dahlia is one of the most versatile of blooms. They also hybridize new varieties and introduce them every year. Each year, they start with 10,000 seedlings and then, over the course of five years, they narrow it down to ten new introductions. Coming up with ten new names every year can be quite challenging. You can see some of these new varieties in their display garden near the cut flower booth. This garden has huge walkways and combination plantings interspersed with an alphabetical planting of most of the varieties they grow at Swan Island Dahlias. The family names all the varieties that they produce. Some are named after family and friends, some names are humorous, some are topical, and some are named as a tribute, like the Garden Time dahlia, which was named for our show.

What if you want to grow and cut your own dahlias from your home garden? We even got tips on that! First we had some steps that the home gardener can be doing now to help their own dahlias. Heather recommended watching for spider mites. These tiny pests can start attacking your plant at the base and you may notice some yellowing of the leaves at the base of you plant. The other thing you can do is to give them a lot of water right now and to ‘deadhead’ or remove the old blooms, the watering and deadheading will promote more growth and even more blooms!

Heather then walked us through the steps of building a great display. First she heat-treated the stems in 160-170 degree water, which will make the cut flowers last longer. You start by filling up a bucket with about four inches of the hot water. When you cut your flowers, you leave a nice long stem. Place the long stemmed flower in the water and let the water cool down with the flowers in the bucket. The longer stem helps keep the blooms from cooking in the steam from the water. The hot water prevents the flower from drying up. The plant’s vascular system stays open so it can take up water a little longer. This means your flower’s blooms will last longer. You can trim the flower stems to the length you want after the heat treatment. When starting your display, pick one variety of flower which establishes the size and height of the arrangement. Then fill in with the other styles and types of blooms around that first bloom. She even uses the discarded stems to add filler to the display. It is very easy to do!

Of course, while you are at the festival you can order tubers for your garden. If you order them on-line during August and September you can get 10% off your order.

If you are looking for ideas or you want to fill your day with color, stop by the Dahlia Festival and check out the display or the fields of color.

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