- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts
- Photography by: Greg Currier
People talk about shy violets, innocent daisies, well-bred roses. But dahlias? Clearly, they’re extroverts who end up in show business. They are long-legged chorus girls, can-can dancers, fiery vixens, the kind of women who would never, ever trade in their Manolo Blahniks for Bean boots.
Maine’s best showcase for these high-stepping flowers can be found on a back road in Camden. Picture a modest red house with 3,500 Rockettes dancing out back, and you have Karen and Phil Clark’s aptly named Endless Summer Flower Farm. Wedding planners and gardeners alike crave dahlias for late-season color, especially in Maine where no one can forget frost is the other f-word. “Let Us Help You With Your Dahlia Addiction,” announces the Clarks’ Web site, and their one-acre nursery has enough flowers to satisfy even the strongest dahlia craving.
From humble beginnings as an Aztec weed with an almost promiscuous facility for cross breeding, dahlias have evolved into nineteen officially recognized forms and literally thousands of varieties in different shape, size, and color combinations, thanks to excited horticulturalists who began experimenting with them in the eighteenth century. Their blooms can be as large as dinner plates or as small as demitasse saucers, they come in every color in the rainbow except blue, and are blessed with sturdy can-do stems. In terms of sheer decorative power, there’s not a flower out there that can compete. And best of all, long after other flowers have shriveled and faded, dahlias are boogying into October, giving in only to hard frost.
The Clarks fell into the flower business by accident. “I had never gardened, never even dreamed of it,” says Phil. Eleven years ago, when their daughter, Lisa, was planning a September wedding, the Clarks decided to plant a few dahlias to provide her with a wedding bouquet. What they didn’t realize was, the more you pick, the more they grow.
A few turned into a crowd, and the surplus ended up in coffee cans in front of their house, for free. The flowers vanished so fast that Phil spotted an opportunity. “I realized,” he says, “I could sell these by the side of the road.” Karen wasn’t thrilled. “I said to him, ‘If you want to have a cart, it has to be classy with a touch of whimsy.’ ” A cute cart was designed and installed in front of their house. Their bouquets, sold on the traditional Maine honor system of bills stuffed into a box, became locally famous. “It’s all her fault,” Phil deadpans.
One thing led to another, as it often does in home-grown businesses. Soon the Clarks began to receive requests for specific colors and sizes of dahlias for weddings and parties. A wholesale business was born with prices based per stem on stem length. Dahlias are ideally suited for weddings and other events where they are often a key decorating element. They can make an impact in even the largest venues, and with hundreds of shades to choose from, are easily adapted to a color scheme. And like the best showgirls, they are versatile. If plunged into hot water when first cut, they keep well outdoors in water for five to seven days, and even longer in a cooler. Hang fairy lights from their strong stems, rope them along balconies, make them into boutonnières and brides’ bouquets, weave ribbons around them — whatever the job, they’re up to it.
Orders rolled in from florists and event planners throughout southern and midcoast Maine. Visitors to the expanding garden who had seen specific varieties began signing up for spring delivery of dahlia roots — tubers — to plant in their own gardens. Dahlias’ somewhat undeserved reputation for being temperamental is based on the need to protect their tubers from freezing. They must be dug up, stored appropriately, then replanted in the spring. Supplying tubers became a natural outgrowth of the cut flower business. Six years ago, the Clarks opened a tubers-only mail order Internet site that now accounts for about half of their revenue; they ship all over the United States and to Hawaii. These days, they grow up to 230 different varieties and sell about 1,500 stems each week between mid-July and mid-September. In Maine, dahlias peak in mid-August and the show closes in mid-October.
A fairy tale story, though the summer months mean fourteen-hour days battling slugs and keeping a sharp eye on the weather. Dahlias’ riotous hairdos wilt in the rain and their blooms won’t open further once cut, so careful management of advance orders is needed. Flowers require frequent deadheading and prefer to be cut early in the morning, yet the couple have only two part-time employees. In addition, Karen works full-time at the Camden law offices of McKittrick & Warren, as she has for the past thirty years. “Sometimes when I’m out in the garden at six in the morning before going to work,” she confesses, “I’m just not feeling the love.” When frost comes, she adds, “Then I’m doing the dance of joy!”
Endless Summer Flower Farm is a team effort, as a tour through the garden demonstrates. Karen, a vivacious blond in a pretty pink sweater who looks rather like a flower herself, trips along the wood chip paths separating the rows, pointing out five-star varieties and the little tree frogs that hide in the plants. “Oh, ‘Desert Flower’, that’s my favorite!” she exclaims, ruffling its wild orange petals. Pastels are popular in the summer; oranges, reds, and yellows in the fall; and white is always in demand. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to imagine starring roles for these gorgeously gaudy plants, which can reach ten feet in height.
Meticulous Phil, a retired printer, sun-dark in shorts and a baseball cap, follows behind, deadheading as he goes. He speaks slowly, and knows the name and habit of virtually all the plants, except the ones that don’t grow true to variety. “That’s ‘I-Don’t-Know Number Five’ over there,” he jokes. She’s the bloom, he’s the root. Or as Karen puts it, “I’m the loudmouth. He’s the quiet one.”
The quietest phase comes in the winter, though much work remains before the ground freezes. Some 15,000 tubers have to be lifted, a Herculean task that takes the Clarks three to four weeks, “depending on the weather and how many people I can wrangle into helping us,” says Phil. Once the tubers are separated, washed, and dried, they are wrapped individually in plastic wrap, and stored in the basement. Phil files them alphabetically by variety name, to make fulfilling orders easier in the spring.
Unlike some growers, the Clarks welcome visitors. Dahlia aficionados are invited to wander the rows to see varieties in full, living color since no photograph can accurately reproduce subtle shadings. The rows are organized by bloom size and sometimes by form, for ease of recognition, and, remarkably every plant is labeled by variety name. “It’s a living laboratory,” says Phil.
They marvel at how respectful visitors are of the flowers. “Gardeners are way over the top,” says Karen. “They’re the nicest people in the world.” They don’t disturb the plants, and even take home the not-perfect-enough-to-sell blooms discarded in buckets at the end of the rows. Out by the cart, they sometimes leave thank-you notes in the moneybox, describing what they intend to do with the cut flowers. Word-of-mouth is the nursery’s only advertising, and word spreads, especially when Phil delivers weekly bouquets to the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce. Then people follow him, “like the Pied Piper,” Karen says, wanting to know where those beautiful blooms come from.
Their planting secrets? In the early spring, Phil inspects each tuber to ensure it has a “live eye” and starts plants — thousands of them — in Styrofoam cups under grow lights until they reach six inches tall. They keep the slugs down with Bug-Geta, applied a couple of weeks before planting and repeated as necessary, and drop a spoonful of bone meal in each hole. A single dose of 10-10-10 is the only fertilizer, since they say they don’t have time for other treatments. Their dazzling dancers merely drink water drawn from the Clarks’ own well, and bask in the six hours of daily sun they need for optimum growth. (Complete cultivation instructions are available on their Web site: www.endlesssummerflowerfarm.com)
The Clarks are modest about their dahlias, suggesting that maybe it’s something in the Maine air — perhaps the salt spray or cool evenings — that makes them grow so tall and flower so exuberantly. “It’s nothing we’re doing,” Karen maintains. “They’re just wonderful flowers.”
If You Go:
Karen and Phil Clark, Endless Summer Flower Farm, 57 East Fork Rd., Camden. 207-236-875. www.endlesssummerflowerfarm.com
- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts
- Photography by: Greg Currier