Thursday, October 6, 2011

Conversations with McClaren: Grow Your Dahlias Organically

Bill McClaren grows his dahlias
This is the third in a series of conversations about dahlia-growing with dahlia guru Bill McClaren, author of the Encyclopedia of Dahlias from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon, and a noted dahlia hybridizer. Bill and Lois McClaren have introduced more than 150 new dahlia varieties from their Alpen Gardens in Kalispell, Montana.

Lynch Creek Farm: Bill, you mentioned in an earlier conversation that when you began growing dahlias, you depended upon chemical fertilizers. Is that still your practice?

McClaren: No, it's not. I would highly recommend anyone growing plants to grow them organically. To do this one must have healthy soil that is teeming with microbes. I started organic growing in the early '90s.

LCF: Why did you switch to organic gardening?

McClaren: We did not think all the chemicals I was using were healthy for our family. Actually, that was Lois who came to that conclusion, and as always, she was right. Since switching, I grow better dahlias with less insects and in th same soil year after year without any effect on the dahlias.

There are a number of excellent publications on organic gardening on the market for anyone interested. It took me several years of experimenting before I saw success. Since that time I have continually improved my practices so that I am convinced it is the only safe way to grow dahlias.

LCF: Will you talk a little more about organic dahlia-growing?

Alpen Cherub, another of McClaren's hybrids, is a
classic collarette with a tinge of green at the base of
the ray florets.
McClaren: Organic growing is a total way of life. It is not possible to grow organically part way. You need to be convinced that it will not be possible to use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or chemical insecticides in any way. No more weekly spraying, no more chemical fertilizers, and beginning a no-till soil system.

The first year growing organically will be a disaster. It improves somewhat the second and by the third year you can breathe a sigh of relief and begin to see a difference.  Read everything you can on organic growing, especially the newer organic books, and also Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web.

LCF: Are there specific techniques you use?

McClaren: I practice no-till gardening. With no-tilling, you do not bring up the seeds that are in the soil so that helps. I also use white Dutch clover between the rows and this controls many weeds since they can’t get started in the shade of the clover. I also use lots of mulch: grass clippings, alfalfa hay, compost. They all keep weeds under control. It does take time, usually several years to see a great improvement.

If you give this serious thought you should be ready to switch next year. Good Luck.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Conversations with McClaren: Hybridizing Dahlias Offers Gratification in a Single Season

Dahlia hybridizer Bill McClaren
This is the second in a series of conversations about dahlia-growing with dahlia guru Bill McClaren, author of the Encyclopedia of Dahlias from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon. At Alpen Gardens in Kalispell, Montana, McClendon has produced and introduced numerous beautiful dahlia varieties.

LCF: How did you become involved in developing new dahlia varieties?

McClaren: When I first got involved with gardening in a major way, the two flowers that I especially liked were gladiolas and dahlias. I have always been interested in growing plants from seed.

I found that it took 2-3 years to see the first bloom from growing gladiolas seed and only the first year for dahlia seed to produce a bloom. I’m sure I am not long on patience so dahlias soon become the flower I wanted to grow and hybridize.

Without many dahlia growers in Montana I did a lot of experimenting. The different forms, sizes and colors convinced me this was the flower to grow. I also found that dahlias could be grown organically but never was successful in growing gladiolas without chemicals. I have always had great support, encouragement, and assistance from Lois my wife. She always assisted in planted, digging, washing, and dividing. No matter how many thousands I grew, she was always there when the work began.

LCF: How do you decide what form or type of dahlia you want to work on developing?

McClaren: At the present time we have introduced nearly 150 varieties. It would be difficult to select a favorite. It’s like asking which of you children is your favorite (some days I do have a favorite). I think it is important for the beginning hybridizer to select the form, color, and size of dahlia they like the best. Grow as many of that type as possible and become well acquainted with how they grow, which have the best color, form, tuber production, and which have the best growing habits.
Bill McClendon's anemone dahlia Alpen Fury
is a favorite at Lynch Creek Farm.

I hybridized miniature cactus (dahlias) for a number of years, and then have progressed through orchids, anemones, singles, and I'm now working with dark foliage and mignon singles. Some of the greatest hybridizers work on one type during their lifetime. I tend toward getting bored after reaching my goal, and I start over. But I have worked as long as 10 years on a certain type before reaching my original goal. 

LCF: Where do you start with hybridizing?

McClaren: It is seldom that dahlia growers have sports (mutations) and they often miss seeing them in their gardens. I'd suggest that dahlia growers begin hybridizing by growing dahlia seed. Some begin by buying seed and growing their first seedlings. This is not nearly as exciting as saving your seed and using that as a starting point.

There are many things a hybridizer can do for greater success, but that is a whole other lesson.