Walt Jacenko displays a quote from his mother painted on a sign in his dahlia garden in south Snohomish County.
“I can not afford the luxury of a negative thought.”
It’s perhaps a theme of Jacenko’s life.
He doesn’t let anything get him down, and the amazing dahlias he grows reflect his sunny disposition.
For his parents, the quote was more about survival. Both Eastern Europeans, they were forced by the Nazis into work camps where they remained until the end of World War II.
After the war, Jacenko’s folks didn’t want to return to Ukraine because of the new Soviet government. Instead they emigrated to Brazil and lived near Sao Paulo.
Born in Hanover, Germany, Jacenko spent most of his childhood in Brazil. He moved to the United States with his family, first to Pennsylvania and then to Seattle when he was 10. The family spoke Ukrainian, Russian, German and Portuguese, but little English.
On the flight from Sao Paulo to Philadelphia, the plane broke down and the family spent a few days in Havana, Cuba.
“There was music in the airport. I loved it,” Jacenko said. “I still play Cuban and Brazilian music while I work in the garden. It fits with the flowers.”
Oh, those flowers. They grow by the hundreds from dozens of raised beds on Jacenko’s multi-level property, where there is a pond, a ravine, cedars, maples and rhododendrons.
Jacenko is the current president of the Snohomish County Dahlia Society and a dahlia hybridizer.
“I am proud of my club because Snohomish County has 13 of the best 25 hybridizers in the nation,” he said. “And we hosted the American Dahlia Society National Show in 2009.”
Jacenko, 67, got hooked on dahlias in 2004 when he stumbled on a national dahlia show in Seattle.
“I was blown away. I had always been a gardener, because my mother was,” he said. “But the dahlias were beautiful.”
“They’re so much easier to grow than roses,” he said. “All you need is lots of water, bees, warm weather and Sluggo Plus.”
Well, it’s a little more difficult than that, but Jacenko loves the challenges of collecting seeds, managing tubers and the unusual practice of raising vegetables in between the flowers.
Yes, among the colorful orange, red, pink, white, yellow and orange dahlias one can find carrots, celery root, beans, parsley, eggplant, zukes, cucumbers, peppers, beets, squash, tomatoes and the passion fruit and collard greens that he ate as a child in Brazil.
In fact, underneath a huge clematis is another painted sign. This one reads, “Walt’s Garden of Eatin’.”
Jacenko graduated from Ingraham High School, which he attended with the likes of Gov. Jay Inslee, who was the quarterback on the football team.
“I was in the car crowd,” Jacenko said. “We would gather at Golden Gardens and that’s where I met my beautiful wife, Linda. All these years later we’re still together and my Corvette from the 1960s is still in the garage.”
Jacenko served a year with the Army in Vietnam and came home to start his career in the construction industry.
On several of his jobs in Seattle, Jacenko gathered up ancient street bricks that were headed for the dump. And with those 30,000 free bricks (and $6,000 worth of mortar) he began to build his raised garden beds. Instead of stairs, the beds are accessed by ramps should Jacenko ever need a wheelchair, he said.
Linda Jacenko has “dirt allergies” and said she leaves the outside jobs to Walt. But she’s been known to help her husband when heavy rains, frost or wind have threatened the dahlias.
Along with garden bricks, Jacenko’s greenhouse is made from all cheap or free recycled materials. His fertilizer is his compost and coffee grounds from Starbucks. The “vases” he uses to transport his blooms to competition are made from PVC pipe. At 6 a.m. Saturday, the vases will be filled and on their way to Everett.
Jacenko collects cross-pollinated seeds to see if he can use any for planting next year (“because you really do not know what you’re going to get when the bees land”) and he digs up the best dahlia tubers for storage by October. Most are back in the ground by May.
Jacenko’s favorites are the variegated flowers. His own favorite hybrid dahlia is a dark red and dark pink flower named “Heather” for the Jacenkos’ daughter. Their son Jason will be married soon and Walt will provide the flowers for the wedding ceremony.
Jacenko likes to share his dahlias with friends and share his time with people who want to know more about the flower.
He expects a lot of people to show up for the dahlia show at Forest Park and he plans to encourage many to join the club.
Jacenko also is the guy who runs the dahlia display and demonstration garden at the Brightwater sewage treatment plant.
He was there when a group of students showed up in a school bus. One girl asked for a dahlia bloom.
“And giving her one was my mistake,” he said. “I ended up cutting 250 dahlias for the kids. The bus driver was not happy.”
Does Jacenko cut bouquets for himself and Linda?
“Nope. We enjoy them outside. You can have too much of a good thing.”
If you go
Snohomish County Dahlia Society Show
1 to 6 p.m. Aug 20 and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 21
Floral Hall at Forest Park, 802 E. Mukilteo Blvd., Everett.
Catch the colorful display of more than 2,500 dahlias as single blooms, triple blooms, 5-blooms, in baskets and in artistic arrangements. Prizes are awarded to winning entries. Free admission.