Hills Collins, 73, of Marysville studies one of his “Tall Firs Keltie,” a dahlia that he originated and will be introducing at this year’s Snohomish County Dahlia Show next weekend at Forest Park in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Dahlia devotees put on a colorful show with up to 2,000 blooms

They’re not looking for perfection, but it’s pretty close.

The Snohomish County Dahlia Society’s 108th show is Aug. 19 and 20 at Floral Hall in Everett’s Forest Park.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Everett Parks Department, is for dahlia devotees as well as wannabes, and features colorful displays of up to 2,000 blooms.

“A lot of new dahlias come out of Snohomish County,” said Dave Eldridge, chairman of the show, “and for many, many years most of them throughout the whole world came out of the Pacific Northwest, because it’s a great growing location for dahlias. We’ve got the cream of the crop.”

The show is an annual Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers competition for members from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Only the best of the best blooms win awards.

Last year, Paul and Cheryl Howard from Surrey, B.C., swept the Best of Show awards, winning both the best single bloom and triple bloom medals.

“We show (our blooms) in the shows because we like the competition, but I think more important is the variety of color you have, what it adds to your garden that way, and they just enjoy working in dahlias,” said Eldridge, of Stanwood. “If you’re going to win a show, you have to put a lot of work into it.”

All those high-quality blooms make for an impressive display.

“We create a floral effect on the stage, so when people walk in the back door, they say, ‘Wow! This is spectacular,’ ” Eldridge said. “It’s a lot of dahlias. A lot. Of dahlias.”

Snohomish County Dahlia Society members take dahlias very seriously.

Judges must be trained in all phases of dahlia judging. The requirements for the advancement of judges from candidate to accredited to senior status are specific. They mark specialty score sheets to maintain consistency and quality.

Judges score a bloom based on its desirable and undesirable characteristics. They look at the quality of color, form, substance, bloom position, foliage and stem. Each dahlia type and size has specific criteria to meet to earn a set number of points. A perfect score is 100 points.

Not to say the blooms are perfect.

“You take your best one, because you want it to be the best one there,” Eldridge said. “That’s what we strive for when we do the judging and so forth. We try to pick the best bloom that is there.

“We’re not going to be perfect — if we were looking for perfection, we wouldn’t give out any awards, because nothing is perfect — but we try to get it as true or as close to perfect.”

Senior judges evaluate the seedlings entered to become new dahlias under the rules of the American Dahlia Society. If the hybrids score 85 points or above, then the hybridizer gets to name the flower and have it added to the national society’s classification book.

Divisions include novice, amateur and open. There is also a juniors (16 and under) division for children to compete.

The best of the three divisions compete for the Best of Show in the single bloom and triple bloom classes, as well as in five bloom, in baskets and in artistic arrangements. There are more than 130 available awards at the show.

“I have to stand and hand out all the awards,” said Hills Collins, a society spokesman. “There are a lot.”

Eldridge, 73, a former Stanwood Middle School teacher, has been a Snohomish County Dahlia Society member for about 40 years. A college friend asked him to tag along to a show and then to compete together — and four decades later the friends are still growing and showing dahlias.

He’s been the show chairman for 35 years. This will be his last year chairing the event. After three and a half decades, Eldridge said it’s time for him to retire the position.

Until last year, Eldridge and his wife, Bobbie, grew hundreds of dahlias on a 3.5 acre farm in Stanwood. He sold the blooms at local markets to supplement his teaching income. At their new home, Eldridge has 21 pots of dahlias in his garden. One pot grows a seedling that was featured at his son’s wedding 20 years ago. He didn’t give the flower a name.

“I grow dahlias for the competition, for the friendships and the camaraderie, and I enjoy going to shows. I still judge, and I enjoy that, too,” he said. “I guess it’s just the teacher in me, but as the chairman of judges and the show, I look at it as a teaching (opportunity).”

Eldridge doesn’t have a favorite dahlia. “I like them all.”

Collins, also 73, of Marysville, is a retired computer programmer. He has been competing in dahlia shows for 18 years.

In 1998, some friends invited him and his wife to the Snohomish County show. They were immediately struck by how beautiful the dahlias on display were. “I wondered, ‘Why don’t mine look like this?’ ” Collins recalled. So he and his wife, Nancy, went to the next meeting to find out. The members there were so helpful that they decided to join.

Collins, now widowed, prefers to grow waterlily dahlias, which look like waterlilies when the stems are cut off. Those were his wife’s favorite.

“I lean toward the bigger ones, but I found some (waterlily dahlias) I really like, and so I just keep growing them,” he said.

His garden is 2⁄3 of an acre and has rows and rows of raised beds for dahlias, as well as Douglas firs, hostas, rhododendrons and a pond with goldfish in it.

Collins plans to introduce a new dahlia at this year’s show. He has a dark pink hybrid that he named “Tall Firs Keltie,” after the trees in his yard and his first dog, that he hopes will make it into the classification book.

His favorite dahlia is the “Sir Alf Ramsey,” a giant bloom with blended colors of lavender and white.

“I love watching them grow, even though they’re a lot of work,” he said. “It’s easier when you don’t have to take them to show.”

Eldrige and Collins don’t yet know which blooms they’ll take to the show next weekend. They’ll probably wait until the day before the show to find the most beautiful ones.

“It’s not necessarily perfection, but (we bring) the best one (we) have,” Eldridge said. “You’re looking for ideal.”

If you go

The Snohomish County Dahlia Society Show is 1 to 6 p.m. Aug. 19 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 20 at Floral Hall in Forest Park, 802 E. Mukilteo Blvd., Everett.

Catch the colorful display of up to 2,000 dahlias as single blooms, triple blooms, five blooms, in baskets and in artistic arrangements. Prizes are awarded to winning entries. Free admission.

For more, go to www.scdahlias.org or call 360-659-8687.

The website has tips, such as on planting, disbudding, cutting, digging and dividing dahlias, including numerous how-to photos.

The club has a tuber sale in April in Everett.

Want to join the club?

Snohomish County Dahlia Society meetings are 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month at Legion Hall, 145 Alverson Blvd., Everett.

Each meeting includes a seasonal program on plant culture, refreshments and a door prize drawing. Many of the top Northwest Dahlia growers attend these meetings and are more than happy to share their know-how with others.

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; sbruestle@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @sarabruestle.

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