Rows of dahlias create local tourist attraction
Fairfield has a new minor tourist attraction thanks to local gardener Alexander Gabis.
Near the intersection of North Fifth Street and West Broadway Avenue, Gabis has planted a number of dahlias both in his yard and in his neighbors’. Gabis explained why he has planted the dahlias in his neighborhood during a recent interview.
What got you interested in dahlias?
Gabis: I had them in Maryland in my backyard, and again in North Carolina for a summer. It seems like the flowers have been my companions for 25 years, but I can't pinpoint why exactly I settled on dahlias. I'm told my Polish grandmother grew them in back of her tenement in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, so maybe it's in my genes.
How long have you been growing them in Fairfield?
Gabis: About 10 years. Besides my own small yard, I grew dahlias in large beds behind Logan Apartments for three years, then in other peoples yards and around town other years. For instance, Colleen Bell had a 30-foot by 30-foot bed we planted and staked dahlias in her back yard for a couple years.
Tell me more about the flower. There's a lot of variety.
Gabis: Yes, there are literally thousands of named cultivars cataloged by the American Dahlia Society. They all have a flower size designation, AA, A, B, etc., and a form: formal decorative, informal decorative, cactus, water lilly, etc.
And of course colors: dahlias come in every color except blue. The size ranges from 2-inch pom-poms to 10-inch dinner plates. I have one named Pooh after Winnie the Pooh. It’s a very playful dahlia with rings of orange and yellow. The sizes of the plants vary greatly too. There are miniature dahlias and some that grow 7-feet tall reaching for the sun!
Is there really such a thing as a black dahlia?
Gabis: Black dahlias definitely exist, except they're not truly black; rather, they are a deep dark red -- quite lovely actually.
Do dahlias have a fragrance?
Gabis: No, they generally don't. However, I've heard that a few varieties do have a faint fragrance, and I was surprised to discover that one of the plants I have here on Fifth Street does have a slight fragrance. It's called Raeanne's Torch. Even though they don’t have a strong fragrance, the bees and local pollinators still love them.
Do dahlias always grow as tall as yours?
Gabis: No. The reason they're so tall is that they're not getting enough sun in this spot. The trees cast a shadow starting around 3 p.m. The plants are reaching for the sun, basically, and I help them by putting the stakes in. In full sun, dahlias stay around 4 to 4.5 feet.
I like the effect – a flower that reaches over your head!
Gabis: I like it too, but when they get this tall, you have to worry about them falling over. Dahlias get very branchy, and Iowa is windy. The plants are top heavy, especially the ones with the larger size flowers. Without all those stakes and all that string, half of these branches would be broken off. As it is, they grow so quickly I can't keep up with the staking and tying. As you see, some branches are hanging down.
Maybe you could use a cage of some kind?
Gabis: Yeah, there are all sorts of things people do to hold them up. I'm really doing it the hard way, but the effect is nice.
Where do dahlias come from?
Gabis: They are native to Central America. These days, most growers and breeders are on the West Coast: Oregon and Washington. Most of the tubers I buy come from that part of the country. They are the national flower of Mexico and were grown as a food crop by the Aztecs.!
You say “tuber” – what exactly is that?
Gabis: A tuber is what most growers start with. It looks like a small sweet potato. At one end it puts out sprouts that start as eyes, like a potato eye. You dig a hole about 5-6 inches in the ground, place the tuber in the bottom more or less with the sprouting end up, and cover it with soil. What is wonderful about the dahlias is that they multiply. One tuber can multiply in one year to two to 10 more. That’s why dahlia growers often have tubers to share.
And that's all there is to it.
Gabis: Hardly. Dahlias are very much an all-season, hands-on plant. When the sprout breaks the surface of the soil, you have to worry about protecting it from slugs. Once it starts growing, there's rabbits to worry about. And then later, deer and woodchucks. And then finally, the insect pests, like cucumber beetles. What's nice about growing them on West Broadway is that we never see deer in this part of town. Woodchucks, yes, but no deer.
Why did you put them on the right-of-way? Aren't you worried people will pick the flowers? And what if the city needs to dig up a pipe?
Gabis: My thought is that they need to be out in the open where everyone can enjoy them. The easement is perfect because of the pedestrian traffic. People are continually walking down Broadway, or coming up Fifth Street – heading to the Dollar store, or wherever. You can't miss them if you're on foot. I believe getting up close is the best way to experience flowers. In terms of people picking flowers, it really hasn't been a problem. But I did post some “no picking” signs. As for pipes and utility work, that's just the chance you take with any landscaping.
How about people in cars? Are they stopping?
Gabis: Most definitely. It's become a minor tourist attraction. People who don't even live in this part of town are driving out of their way to see them. A nice side effect of this garden-on-the-easement thing is that it connects you to your neighbors. I've made more friends working out here in four or five months than I did in 10 years of living on Fifth Street. The garden brings people together who otherwise wouldn't communicate at all. It's a community-building thing.
I see you have two beds this year. What are you planning for next season?
Gabis: There's a movement afoot to make Fairfield a “City of Dahlias” in the same way that Pella is a city of tulips. Tulips only bloom for a couple weeks. Dahlias bloom all summer until it freezes. Dahlia lovers are envisioning dahlia gardens everywhere, starting with the town square and in the landscaped islands around the square and center of town. Right now it's just rumblings, but there's no telling where the campaign could lead. Many people besides myself are growing dahlias in Fairfield.
As far as these particular beds are concerned, it depends on the city, to be honest. I've been told that the city doesn't want flowers this tall on the right-of-way. There's an obvious need to update the code to reflect the desires of the folks out here in the neighborhood. Absolutely every neighbor I've talked to loves the flowers and appreciates the work. What would it take to change that code I wonder? So we'll have to see.