A dahlia farm in Pittsburgh? Who knew?
Deep in the heart of Sewickley Heights, past the horse paddocks and the old estates and the McMansions, the aptly named Alpha Dahlias farm brims with flowers as tall and strong as linebackers, with stems like iron and blossoms that explode like a Zambelli show on the Fourth of July.
But it's late September, and while the pyrotechnics are still going strong, the first hard frost will knock these blooms down, so hurry and make an appointment to see Evy Rogers, owner of Alpha Dahlias. Don't drive too fast or you'll miss it: From the entrance at 1100 Camp Meeting Road, her 4.5-acre property doesn't really look like a farm. There's a contemporary house with neatly mowed lawns, and in the distance, dots of color in what looks like a small garden. But turn the car up her driveway and the dots expand until you can hardly believe your eyes: dahlias, hundreds of blooms-- thousands of them, a football field's worth.
Alpha Dahlias has been in business for three years, and during that time it has quietly become an indispensible source of cut flowers -- dahlias only -- for florists, event planners, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Grand Concourse, The Pennsylvanian or any place in need of a sensational floral display, a bride's bouquet or just a simple bunch of blossoms on the kitchen table.
"I just cut 500 flowers before you came for a wedding in Oakmont," said Ms. Rogers, sitting in her shingled wooden shed in the middle of the property, with its special cooling room and back door designed to quickly move buckets of dahlias onto the backs of trucks that come out here almost daily for their precious cargo.
It was one of those perfect green-and-gold Western Pennsylvania fall afternoons where 7,000 blooms -- from 1,200 plants -- rose toward an enameled blue sky. It's high season now for cut flowers, but dahlia tubers are for sale to the public online beginning in December and are shipped in the spring, in varieties you won't find at a big box store, although you'll find those, too -- old reliable 'Duet,' 'Emory Paul"or the rarer 'King Salmon,' a huge, shaggy watermelon-colored dahlia, a true showstopper.
If peonies are the silk taffeta ballgowns of the garden, dahlias are the flounced skirts from the Folies Bergere -- French poet Paul Verlaine's "hard-bosomed courtesan" with hot, Toulouse-Lautrec colors in every shape and permutation, kaleidoscopic, always evolving. Or instead of frills and lace, cup your hand around one of the globelike pom-pom flowers with tightly quilled petals -- It's as sturdy as wax. There are cool colors too, and even an almost-black dahlia -- 'Black Burgundy' -- that a bride requested recently, to Ms. Rogers' amazement.
Alpha Dahlias' genesis was simple: After telling her husband Jack, a retired dentist, that she wanted to grow more dahlias -- "we had too many plants for just two people" -- Ms. Rogers visited a few florists in town.
"I went in and asked if they got their dahlias locally, and they told me there weren't any regional suppliers."
So Ms. Rogers went to Costco, bought some tubers and then starting looking around the country for other kinds -- big dinner plates, little pom poms, singles, low growers, dark foliage -- poring over lists published by the American Dahlia Society, purchasing 800 the first year.
"I feel as though I didn't choose to grow dahlias. They chose me."
Dahlias are a tricky business. Unlike peonies or roses, they can't be shipped until 70 percent of their blooms have opened, so timing is crucial, but Ms. Rogers seems remarkably calm and self-possessed. She's not really a novice: Years in the art business taught her the ins and outs of retail, including not to take credit cards, although she does use PayPal for online orders. Ms. Rogers and her business partner, woodworker and art furniture maker Joe Jacob, have owned Jacob Rogers Art since 1993, making exquisite, award-winning one-of-a-kind tables, cabinets, clocks and wall art from exotic and reclaimed wood and acid-etched aluminum.
She's creative, but Mr. Jacob, she says, is the daredevil "who thinks big. He says, why plant 20 when you can plant 50?"
Looking out over the rows of technicolor blossoms, a visitor could see a baseball cap moving deliberately along, a cap belonging to Mr. Jacob, who designed the immaculate flower beds with their irrigation systems and webs of wood and wire strung just so -- the most perfectly designed supports you will never find in a garden supplies catalog. Dahlia stems can break in a strong wind, but these flowers are so healthy from regular watering, fertilizing and sunshine that their stems feel like wood.
On this afternoon, Mr. Jacob was "disbudding" the flowers -- pinching off tiny leaves and tender shoots at the top of the plants, which sap energy and make for smaller blooms and weaker stems. Disbudding creates fewer but larger blooms, the ones florists crave.
Come spring, he and Ms. Rogers don't just stick the tubers in the ground. They're started indoors in dry peat or vermiculite under lights until green shoots appear. After the last frost, they're planted in rows of enriched, well-drained soil, and the show begins slowly -- just green through July, and then, a late summer reward that lasts until the first hard frost.
Then, when the plants have collapsed and blackened, Mr. Jacob and Ms. Rogers will carefully lift the tubers out of the ground and begin the process of overwintering them in plastic bags with vermiculite, storing them in Mr. Jacob's studio, which is exactly the right temperature -- cool and dry, frost-free -- to store dahlias.
Overwintering can be tricky -- too much humidity can rot the tubers, too much cold will kill them. In fact, last year Ms. Rogers deliberately left a few varieties in the ground she was not pleased with in the hope of killing them, but the winter was so mild, they came back.
For the average dahlia lover, Ms. Rogers says, don't bother with trying to store them.
"They're so cheap -- just order new ones next year."
Alpha Dahlias will be waiting for you.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com or 412-263-1949.