Anchorage dahlias escape the frost, for now
The dahlias grow in a parking lot at 880 N Street as if there is no tomorrow — a riot of color and probably among the last hold-outs in Anchorage from the frost, which has put most city gardens to rest.
But that won’t kill Graeme Pincott’s passion for growing them.
Pincott, a longtime Anchorage hairstylist, shares space in his salon with his wife, Iryna Dunaeva, who gives piano lessons in a room next door. During the day, Pincott looks out his window at his dahlia patches, planted alongside his building and in the parking lot.
Combined, he has more than a hundred plants, weighted down with at least a thousand blossoms. Some are shaped like giant pompoms, between eight and 14 inches wide. Others have honeycombed blossoms, or look more like daisies.
After the last customer of the day, Pincott hurries outside to dote on his dahlias.
“I spend probably two to four hours a night down here,” Pincott said while tending dahlias in the parking lot outside his salon. “Constant watering, slug maintenance and deadheading, all the time.”
“Deadheading” is slang for clipping the spent blossoms. If a gardener is diligent about cutting them, the plants will bloom continuously from mid-summer to the first heavy frost.
Otherwise, Pincott says, the blossoms rot and turn to mush.
The very thought has turned Pincott into a devoted dead-header.
“So I guess that’s extreme gardening,” Pincott said in his New Zealand accent.
His wife, Dunaeva, originally from the Ukraine, complains of being a “garden widow,” but is quick to add that her husband’s passion for dahlias is a much better addiction than alcohol or gambling.
During the summer, when it’s warm enough to open the windows, music from Dunaeva’s Steinway floats by. Pincott says it’s the perfect accompaniment for his summer passion project.
When the first frost takes the lives of his beloved dahlias, Pincott digs them up and divides the roots for the next season. He always has more than he needs and loves to give them away.
Pincott will start the dahlias in a greenhouse next spring. And then the cycle begins all over again.
Pincott shared some tips on how to grow dazzling dahlias:
Start of season
The best results are to divide the clump of roots so you only have one single tuber with a single growth eye. Break others off for a stronger single stem plant.
Start the tubers indoors in March or April in two-gallon pots — larger pots make it more difficult to transplant. Place the starter in a sunny location.
Use a small stake at the rear of tuber, leaving room for the plant stem to grow in thickness.
I use 1/2 garden soil and 1/2 pro-mix — the coarser pro-mix potting medium. Please do not use soil that has been treated with herbicide, such as store-bought soil in bags. Mix bonemeal into this medium, enough to see traces throughout the mixture.
Once the plant starts growing, after the first three leaves on the stem, pinch out the center leaf shoot. The plant will put out two lateral shoots, again pinch out the center of the stem after the second leaf.
On Memorial Day weekend, transplant the plant into an outside garden when it’s 65 degrees or warmer.
Dig a hole four inches deeper than the height of the pot. Use another handful of bonemeal, mostly in the bottom of the hole, sprinkle some on the backfill from the hole. This will be pushed back around the plant to firmly hold the stem in place.
I use tomato cages and cut out the bottom circle to wiggle the plant through the hoops at transplanting. Once the plant is taller, use a large stake through the top circle to support the cages from blowing over.
Midway through summer, throw a generous amount of slug bait under the plants.
Pull off any branches that touch the ground — this helps preventing the slugs from sheltering under leaves and from moving up into the plant. It also strengthens the main stem for a more sturdy plant.
Never use 20-20-20 fertilizer, it isn’t suitable for dahlias. Always use a small first number such as granular spring bulb fertilizer 5-10-10, or in the later season when plants are full size, for just promoting flowers, use liquid 0-10-10.
Deadheading spent flowers and fallen petals off the leaves, plus removing broken branches is a daily routine, especially after rain.
End of season
Wait until a couple of good killing frosts to blacken the leaves and stems — this sends an enzyme to the tuber that prompts the tuber into dormancy. Should the plant be dug “green” it won’t hold over winter well and will start prematurely sprouting.
In Alaska, you must treat the dahlias as an annual. The plants must be dug up and the tubers stored between 40 and 50 degrees. Sawdust is an easy medium to winter the tubers; you may also choose sphagnum moss, or pro-mix. All should be slightly damp. Cardboard boxes work better than plastic containers. Don’t let the tubers touch each other.
Only one tuber with an eye is needed to start next year’s healthy plants. Discard the rest of the root.