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.

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