Singular Sensation

  • By Sarah Jackson, Herald Writer
  • Thursday, August 16, 2007 10:28am
  • Life

When it comes to dahlias, the so-called “singles” are often overlooked.

Their simple forms – typically eight petals in a single, flat plane – look more like daisies or cosmos blossoms than the voluptuous dinner-plate dahlias that typically turn heads.

They’re tidy, simple and, when it comes to the types known as mignon singles, often more petite.

Unlike dahlias that grow more than 6 feet tall and produce almost-garish globes, some of the mignon singles require little, if any, staking. Many are shorter than 2 feet and make great mixed-border plants because they produce so many flowers.

Locally, Jerry Morris of Snohomish has become an expert in singles.

This weekend, he’ll enter a few of his precious blooms in the Snohomish County Dahlia Society’s annual two-day show, which is open to the public at Forest Park in Everett.

More than 1,000 blooms will be on display, and Morris’ flowers will likely be among the award winners.

“I like the little ones because they’re easier to maintain,” said his wife, Barb Morris, who nonchalantly brought a few singles home about a decade ago.

“At that time, I raised a vegetable garden,” Jerry Morris said. “She said, ‘You can find a spot for these.’ All of the sudden, I find myself with all dahlias and no vegetables.”

Now, more than 10 years later, Jerry and Barb Morris are president and recording secretary, respectively, of the society – and they’re still dazzled by the sweet singles.

Over the years, Jerry Morris has set himself apart as an award-winning hybridizer, chiefly inspired by singles, a form of dahlia that commercial and amateur growers alike have neglected.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be keen if a guy could see if you could hybridize some new colors?’” he said. “I do about three to four hundred little seedlings every year.

“When you do seedlings, you’re putting in a whole bunch of magic because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Morris, who also grows some of the larger dahlias forms, has since introduced his own new varieties, including BJ’s Meagan Lyn – a miniature-ball form dahlia named after their daughter – which won the Lynn B. Dudley Seedling Sweepstakes Medal in 2004 from the American Dahlia Society.

It’s one of hundreds of awards Morris has earned for his work, made easier by the fact he has few challengers in the open-faced flower categories at dahlia shows.

Though Morris must grow his new seedling varieties consistently for four years before he can officially introduce them as new varieties, all the bees visiting his property – which easily cross-pollinate his collection – have led him to some cool new hues.

Danielle Parshall of Clearview, also a member of the local dahlia society, grows BJ’s Gunnar, one of Jerry Morris’ recent mignon single introductions named after his 4-year-old grandson.

“I like the colors,” Parshall said of the hot-pink petals on Gunnar, which grow darker near the center of the flower. “It’s very nice.”

Most hybridizers avoid planting singles because they’re trying to create more traditional dahlia forms, such as decorative, cactus, laciniated and ball. Cross-pollination from singles doesn’t help with that.

“People don’t want them around,” Morris said, adding that his work has popularized them a bit more locally. “They’ve gotten more recognition in the past few years. There’s a lot of landscapers now putting them in as – what they call – border flowers.”

But there are some downsides to the singles.

Their blooms don’t necessarily last as long as those of bigger dahlias, and deadheading is essential for keeping the plants looking their best, not a simple feat for a man with a large cutting garden and 75 potted dahlias to boot.

Every fall Jerry and Barb Morris dig up hundreds of tubers that they wash, divide, sanitize and store for the winter.

Though Barb Morris yearns for a vegetable garden, she’s getting by with a cherry tomato plant in a pot. It’s hard for her to resist the payoff of the dahlias, which start flowering in April, thanks to an early start in their small backyard greenhouse.

“They bloom all the way until it frosts,” she said. “You get months and months of blooms. It’s perfect.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or

Location: Full sun. Afternoon sun is better than morning sun. Plants will tolerate some shade.

Soil preparation: Provide good drainage and as much organic material as possible such as compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mold and peat moss. Thoroughly turn the soil before planting. Jerry and Barb Morris of Snohomish plant a soil-building cover crop of rye, Australian winter peas, buckwheat, vetch and crimson clover in the fall and till it into the ground in spring.

Planting: Plant tubers when the soil warms up, usually in late April or mid-May, shortly after the Snohomish County Dahlia Society’s annual tuber sale. Dahlias vary in height, so arrange the taller varieties at the back of the bed. Allow 2 to 3 feet between plants. When planting the tubers, place a stake in the ground and dig a hole about 6 inches deep on each side of the stake. Place the tuber flat with the eye upward near the stake and cover loosely with soil.

Fertilizing: One tablespoon of a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote can be placed in the hole with the tuber at planting time. Use a 0-20-20 such as Bloom or a low-nitrogen fertilizer in July to enhance bloom and tuber growth.

Topping: To encourage compact, bushy growth and more flowers, pinch out the center growing tip when the plant is about 1 foot high.

Disbudding: Focus plants’ energy on bigger blooms and better stems by pinching off the immature side flower buds of each branch.

Pest control: Slugs love dahlias in the spring, so surround young plants with slug bait. Aphids and earwigs will attack almost any time. Use insecticidal soap on aphids.

Disease: When plants become larger, remove leaves near the ground to prevent mold and mildew spores from splashing into the plant. This will also make it harder for earwigs and slugs to slither onto plants.

Watering: Dahlias like deep watering more than frequent light watering. During summer heat, water every four to five days. Jerry Morris, who uses an irrigation system at the soil level, waters for about an hour every other day in summer.

Cutting: Cut early in the morning or late at night. To properly condition the blooms, place them in water away from drafts for eight to 12 hours. Display flowers in a cool part of the home. Add a few drops of bleach or liquid dishwashing soap to the water to prevent bacterial growth. Cut the flowers slightly before they peak or are all the way open.

Digging and dividing: Around Nov. 1, cut dahlias down and lift the tubers and roots carefully with a spade by digging around the entire plant about 1 foot from the stalk. Wash clumps, trim stalks a few inches above root level and divide. Remove tubers from clump using a knife or a sharp pair of clippers. Jerry Morris recommends washing and dividing followed by soaking the tubers in a weak bleach solution (1 cup of bleach with 5 gallons of water) for a few minutes.

Storing: Many growers store tubers in slightly damp vermiculite, potting soil or sawdust in a plastic bag in a cool space that stays above freezing. Check tubers during the winter and remove any that develop mold or rot.

Plastic wrap trick: Jerry Morris tried a new, increasingly popular storage method last fall using plastic wrap. After letting the washed and divided tubers dry completely, he takes a long sheet of plastic wrap and rolls up one tuber, followed by another and another until he’s left with a ball of tubers wrapped together but not touching (except through the plastic). This way, if one tuber starts to rot, it won’t affect the others.

Why not leave dahlias in the ground? Many varieties are hardy enough to stay in the ground all winter. There are, however, definite benefits to digging. First, you can divide them to make more plants to expand your cutting garden or to share with friends. Second, you’ll avoid rot due to poor drainage or death from an unusually deep frost. Because many dahlia stems are hollow all the way down to the tuber, it’s a good idea to cover them with some leaves or an upside-down plant pot to keep out rain and slugs.

Herald reporter Debra Smith contributed to this report.

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