heirloom dahlias, with scott kunst

Vintage dahlia catalog, from Old House Gardens' collectionIF I SAY ‘HEIRLOOM,’ YOU’D probably say “seed,” but the topic today is heirloom bulbs—and especially dahlias. Mr. Heirloom Bulb himself, Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens, tells us why we should share his “anthropological passion” for these exceptional plants, and how to grow them.  

Since 1993, Scott has published a catalog (and more lately of course a website) from his headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that represents the only American resource devoted exclusively to heirlooms bulbs, many available nowhere else.

After a degree from Columbia, Scott returned to Michigan to teach school, and bought an 1870s fixer-upper house that he says led to an epiphany, when he realized some of the plants outside it were history-filled hand-me-downs of gardeners past. He pursued a master’s degree in historic preservation, and worked as a landscape historian, and has taught landscape history and preservation at Eastern Michigan University.

In our Q&A on my public-radio show and podcast on February 24, 2014, we talked about oldtime bulbs:

my heirloom-bulb q&a with scott kunst

Sellwood Glory dahlia at Old House GardensQ. When we spoke the other day, Scott, you said something I really loved about your relationship to oldtime bulb varieties. You said:

“I have an anthropological passion for these things.”

Tell us about what heirloom bulbs are–what draws you to them, and why we should grow them in our gardens.

A. Heirloom bulbs are older varieties that have been handed down, and have some enduring value and interest. Some people try to define them by a specific date—they have to be this old, or that old–but I’m not that kind of guy.  If they’re old, if they’re worthy, if they’re at risk–I’m interested.

What draws me to heirloom bulbs: they’re great garden plants, which is why they’ve stuck around. The so-so plants don’t endure for centuries.

They’re wonderfully diverse—and I think that’s what I mean by this anthropological interest of mine. They’re diverse in a way that gives us insight into different visions of beauty, for lack of a better word.

A lot of times I compare it to different kinds of food, or different kinds of art.

I love Korean food, and Middle Eastern food, and Ethiopian food, and partly it’s the diversity of flavors—but it’s also that people are so interesting, the way they’ve selected things out of the world and used them and found them worthy and beautiful (and delicious). Art’s the same thing: I’m not a guy who says “Rembrandt’s the only great artist,” or Van Gogh, or Andy Warhol.

The past is rich in that kind of stuff—the past is like a foreign country. I’m sort of paddling up the Amazon of the past, looking for fascinating specimens that I think deserve to be continued in our gardens–and save them, and get people to grow them so they can be saved.

[Photo above is ‘Sellwood Glory’ dahlia, from 1951.]

Q.  Have these heirloom bulbs stuck around because they are durable, too?

A. They really are tough, adaptable, enduring and low-maintenance. I’ve even started to wonder about the use of the word heirlooms, because for some people I know that conjures up that they have to take special care of them. These aren’t little old lacey things!

[More on why to grow heirlooms, on Old House Gardens’ website.]

Gree Lace gladiolus from Old Hosue GardensQ. Now, when you began collecting heirloom plants 30 years ago, what was “old” or “heirloom” is different from what’s “old” now, wasn’t it? 

A.  When I eventually launched my catalog in 1993, I would never even consider putting bulbs from the 1960s in it. But I quickly learned that for some bulbs—like Gladiolus—it’s hard to find any varieties from the 1940s or before, and now even varieties from the 1950s and 1960s are incredibly hard to find.

So we have added newer bulbs—and we’ve also lost some bulbs. [Photo: 1961 vintage ‘Green Lace’ glad.]

Q. Part of the mission of your collection, and business, is preservation–and I know that gets harder every year, for anyone working with heirloom genetics of living plants or animals–because of course they are perishable.

A. I went into the business to save all these old bulbs, and over the course of 20 years some of my favorites have slipped through my fingers. I may have a handful growing here in my own garden, but I can’t get a commercial supply to sell any more.  Like with a particular tulip, the one I launched my catalog with in 1993, I kept thinking, “Do I have the last ‘Prince of Austria’ in my garden?” It was like having the last panda or something, and I felt a responsibility to try to save it.

Gracchus iris from Old House GardensQ. Some of the oldtime plants you sell are not technically bulbs—for instance, you sell antique bearded iris (including my favorite, ‘Gracchus’).

A. We stretched it maybe five or six years ago to include bearded irises, classic daylilies and peonies—all three of which often show up in bulb catalogs from 50 or 100 years ago.

They have thick, fleshy roots and can be shipped basically dormant–and there were so many great old varieties, I thought we’d add them to the catalog.

Q. So let’s talk about dahlias–heirloom dahlias. Can we have a quick history of cultivated dahlias first?

A. They were domesticated by the Aztecs, and came into European gardens, Western gardens if you will, in the very late 1700s.

Dahlias have an unusually diverse genome—instead of having two sets of chromosomes, like most living creatures [one set inherited from each parent], they actually have eight. They’re octoploids.

I often call dahlias “the dogs of autumn,” because like dogs they are just incredibly diverse.

So right away, Europeans started planting the seeds and all sorts of new varieties popped up and people got very excited about dahlias very quickly.

Even here in the Middle West, by the 1840s, when people were still in log cabins, you read reports of patches of dahlias out in the wilderness. They became sort of the “it” flower of much of the 19th century. Roses were probably always the most popular flower, but dahlias were right up there.

And then interest sagged, but it rebounded when cactus dahlias were introduced in the late 1800s into the early 20th century they were huge, but then they went out of fashion. Now they seem to be rebounding.

[Browse all the Old House Gardens dahlias.]

Bishop of Llandaff dahlia at Old House GardensQ. Why do you like growing dahlias in your garden in particular?

A. They’re gorgeous flowers with incredible diversity. They make great cut flowers for bouquets. And fall is their glory season—fall is like their spring, and they just keep exuberantly bursting with more and more color. They have transformed my thinking about my own garden in fall. I can’t wait for fall now.

Q. I particularly love the dark-leaved types, such as “the Bishop” as many friends call our favorite one with hot red flowers and burgundy leaves. Tell us about some of your favorite old-timers.

A. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ [above photo] is a great one that dates to the 1920s, and there are other Bishop-named ones now, but they are all modern. The dark-foliage dahlias have come back into vogue.

Q. Other great oldies?

A.  Some other favorites include one of the first three species to come out of Mexico to the West in the late 1700s, and it’s the dark purple form called atropurpurea [photo below]. It has great foliage, finely cut and very exuberant.  Another great one I like is probably the most popular dahlia of the 20th century, called ‘Jersey’s Beauty,’ luscious pink, on a tall plant. And a little one called  ‘Klankstad Kerkrade,’ a soft yellow pompom dahlia with spiky petals. [A chart of all Old House Gardens dahlias, by year, color, and attributes.]

Dahlia atropurpurea from Old House GardensQ. So let’s go through how to grow them—I think people get intimidated, sometimes.

A. First of all, I really think they’re easy. You do have to stake them—and I used to compare growing dahlias to growing tomatoes. But staking a dahlia is so much easier than staking a tomato, because tomatoes are meant to sprawl, so you’re always trying to make them stand up, and dahlias are more self-supporting and want to grow upright. I put the stake in when I put the tuber in the ground.

Q. Do you start them indoors there in Michigan, for a headstart?

A. We do, four to six weeks before the weather settles, but you don’t have to.  A friend always puts them into the garden earlier than we would ever recommend, and she always has great dahlias—so there are many ways to grow them.

Outdoors, we plant them about 6 inches below the surface after the soil has warmed up—not in cold and wet spring soils.

[How to grow dahlias, from Old House Gardens.]

Q. I think people worry that the fleshy tubers are trickier than some rock-hard bulbs to dig and store, and that prevents them from trying dahlias.

A. We all grow so many annuals—like tomatoes—that we don’t think twice about when the season ends. But somehow with tender bulbs, because you can dig and store them, people think you have to. I just say: try one, and if you get to the end of the season and feel like trying it, fine—but don’t let that stop you from growing them.

[Winter care of dahlia tubers, from Old House Gardens.]

win some old house gardens bulbs

2013-14CatCoverSmI’LL PURCHASE A $40 gift certificate from Old House Gardens to share with one lucky winner. UPDATE: The giveaway is done; thanks to all who entered. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments below:

Do dahlias figure in your garden, or what other spring-planted “summer bulbs” do you use in your gardens, and why?

Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say, “Count me in” or something like that, and I will, but I’d love to hear a little more if you can share! The winner will be selected after entries closed midnight Monday, March 3, 2014.

EXTRA: If you mention A Way to Garden with any spring 2014 order at Old House Gardens, Scott and his colleagues will include 5 free bulbs of their all-time best-selling gladiolus, bright little ‘Atom’.

  1. meredith says:

    I have tried Dahlias before but I didn’t store them properly and they shriveled up in the basement. I believe I did have Bishop of Llandaff and I did get them from Old House gardens. I would like to try again! I also have snowdrops, crocus, grape hyacinth, wind flower, iris, peonies and daffodils (many of which I dug up from my grandparents home when it was sold!) Going strong probably 60+ years after they were first planted there.

  2. margaret says:

    And the winner is….Philip (who will be notified by email)! Thanks to all of you for sharing your bulb stories, and the lively response.

    Comments will remain open, but the drawing is officially closed.

  3. Laura Austin says:

    I always enjoy the depth and breath of your newsletter. Your writing gives excitement, hope, challenge and love. This week you fell a bit short of that, however. Specifically, in this issue, I took offense to your use of the words, “garden vomit” in referencing forsythia. It’s fine you don’t like the forsythia, we all have a plant we’re not fond of, but to use such a vulgar description was terribly insensitive to the thousands of us who do like it (even love it) and think it is a beautiful welcome sign of spring. In the future, please don’t be so unkind. There’s no need to be a bully. Just simply tell us what you don’t like.

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