SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Good Karma--"Karma" dahlias, that is
The sponteneous purchase of Karma Dahlias turned out to be one of the best decisions of the season for Melanie and flower partner Linda.

By Melanie DeVault

A little bit about Melanie

Melanie and husband George own a 19.2-acre certified organic farm in Emmaus, PA, where they, with son Don and daughter Ruth, have operated a modified CSA and members-only home market stand, sold at Farmers’ Markets, to health food stores and restaurants. Melanie specializes in specialty cut flowers. A former newspaper reporter, she also is a freelance garden writer. She is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.

QUESTIONS?

I’ll be happy to anwer them!

E-mail me at devault@fast.net and include your name and general location.

November 9, 2004: A fellow cut flower grower did the irresistible earlier this year, just as spring was nearing, our energy was plentiful and the sky was certainly the only limit: “Hey, want to go in on some Karma Dahlias with me? They’re REAL good sellers and there’s a sampler special that’s priced right. I’ll order.”

My flower partner, Linda Essert-Kuchar, and I tied for the quickest response time. “Sure” was out of our mouths quicker than our brains could throw in those hitches -- like where we would plant them and what the heck did we have to do to grow these, dare I say, moneymakers. It was April. The dahlias would arrive in June. We had plenty of time to work out those little details.

Okay. So the space we allotted wasn’t nearly enough. But as luck would have it, my son had just pulled up some veggie crop remains and tilled the ground in between the high tunnel and hoophouse. We had a bed in the high tunnel cleared, too. Voila. Linda and I followed Gloeckner’s and our friend Paul’s planting instructions, set up support netting and in they went.

The spontaneous move lead to one of our best flower successes this year. The Karma Dahlias drew rave reviews from farmers’ market customers, florists and farm visitors. Once the flowers started coming in late August, they kept right on coming through September and into mid-October. We covered the outside beds with Reemay once as frost threatened. They’re still coming. The row planted inside the tunnel is tall and vibrant.

My husband, George, and I took a quick hop to Maine a week ago to visit family, and stopped in on grower Matt Gerald in Bar Harbor. “Karmas -- I like them all,” he said, showing us through his high tunnels with rows of tall, healthy plants. “I pinch at four nodes and they never stop.”

More testimonials to Karmas ensued at Dave Dowling's Farmhouse Flowers and Plants October 14th grower workshop in Brookeville, MD. He plants the dahlias in early June in high tunnels and expects to harvest them through -- that’s through -- November.

The Karma Story

So what are Karma Dahlias? The Karma Dahlia Series was developed by brothers Adrian and Case Verwer, who have been growing and breeding dahlias since 1964, according to company literature. They weren’t happy with the commercial dahlia selection so they started their own breeding program. They wanted healthy varieties that are attractive, have a long flowering period and keep well. They reached their goal, the story continues, with the Karma Dahlia, which has a vase life of 8 to 10 days.

Unlike more familiar dahlias, which come as tubers that must be dug, Karmas are a line of vegetatively propagated dahlia, and come as cuttings that are virus-indexed and from a certified clean mother stock program. They’re only available from Bosgraaf Greenhouses in Hudsonville, MI, through Gloeckner (www.fredgloeckner.com). The Karmas are a patented series and cannot be propagated. They’re available as an unpinched 72 cell liner and there is a minimum order.

Kelly Meringolo, cut flower product manager for Gloeckner, said they will again offer a sample package for first time users for the coming year -- 4 trays with 288 plants -- and the regular order program minimum is again 6 trays of 72 or 432 total plants. (So think “sharing.”)

What’s Available

Kelly said the same varieties as last year will be available, including: Karma Amanda, a rose with cream petal base; Karma Bon Bini, red tip with yellow center; Karma Corona, golden apricot; Karma Lagoon, hot pink; Karma Naomi, dark red; Karma Sangria, pink with yellow petal base; Karma Serena, white; Karma Thalia, fuchsia; and Karma Ventura, bright yellow. As of this week, they were still working on getting a new pink variety.

Favorites seem to be a simple matter of taste. We, and our customers, especially liked the Sangria. I liked the white for bouquet filler, but flower partner Linda doesn’t like anything white. She prefered the Sangria and Bon Bini. Dave Dowling also likes Sangria, and Naomi, but didn’t go for Amanda or the shorter varieties.

The How-To

• Plant in a well drained soil--not too rich but not a heavy or clay-based soil.

• Plants need at least 14 hours of light, and need to be planted so as to avoid frost damage. Gloeckner recommends the following planting period, as a general rule: Heated greenhouse, year round, providing extra lighting when needed to achieve 14 plus hours day length; Unheated greenhouse, April/May onward; Outdoors, when danger of frost has ended. (Planting in early to mid June in the north helps get you through the sparser late summer/fall period).

• Space plants one per square foot to 1.5 square feet in beds. For single row, allow 18 to 24 inches between plants.

• Use support netting! Some growers use two or three layers. We used one and did well, adding a row of twine around the top ends in some areas. Some growers have found problems with tangling upon harvest with more layers.


You don't need much, but you do need
support. One layer worked for Mel.

• Pinch at 3 sets of leaves. A second pinch can be done, Gloeckner says, when breaks are long enough to pinch, leaving one set of leaves after the second pinch -- which is done usually 2 to 3 weeks after the initial pinch. The second pinch greatly increases yield. Flowering generally occurs about 9 weeks after the last pinch.

• Keep soil moist but not soggy. Water more frequently when plants start putting on a lot of foliage. (We use drip irrigation.)

• To keep disease and pests at bay, check for snails/slugs, aphids, thrips etc. (We didn’t have a problem, but would have used an OMRI-approved spray or beneficial insects like ladybugs had aphids become a problem in the greenhouse). We use drip irrigation and ventilation in the greenhouse to deter powdery mildew, which can become a problem later in fall.

• As organic growers, we use compost and fish fertilizer. It worked well. Gloeckner recommends a high percentage potassium and phosphorous fertilizer within 30 days of planting, and keeping pH level between 6 and 7.

• Harvest when the flower is slightly open and showing color. The first cut should be taken back to a single node. Remove stragglers at the base of the plant. Always cut above the node. (We did really well following these rules. The only problem flower was the yellow, which seemed to pop open before we could get it cut, many times. Check frequently and cut when the flowers are at the proper stage, and keep in a cooler, if you have one). Gloeckner recommends cutting stems into hot water (about 160 degrees). May be a good method, but we didn’t bother with it and did fine.

• We mulched with sawdust (can use straw) after the plants were up and growing a few inches.

Problems?

Kelly at Gloeckner says just about everybody she talks to is really excited about the Karmas. “They’re getting nice wholesale and retail prices.” A common problem with dahlia tubers has been virus, and Karmas, with the rooted cuttings, don’t have that problem, she notes.

Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market (www.growingformarket.com) and author of The Flower Farmer, says she had problems with grasshoppers on her Karma Dahlias in Kansas, and probably won’t try them again.

Another grower in Doylestown, PA, had problems with Japanese beetles. What to do? Dave Dowling says he didn’t see Japanese beetles do as much damage in the high tunnel as in the field. In fact, he said Japanese beetles don’t seem to like to go into the high tunnels, for some reason.

Matt Gerald said he only had a little thrip problem with the flowers in his high tunnel, and got good results with beneficial insects.

We had a little powdery mildew slip over to the Karmas from the zinnia, but we’re keeping the problem under control with good ventilation and preventative milk spray (1 part whole milk to 9 parts water). Other than that, we’ve seen very little problems with the Karmas.

The best testimonial probably comes from our daughter Ruthie, who’s getting married next August: “Oh, I want those (Sangria) for my wedding bouquet!”