Portland area dahlia growers flourish at nationals
If you live in the Canby area, home to the nation's largest dahlia grower Swan Island Dahlias, then chances are you have some level of appreciation for the colorful late-summer bloomer.
Then there's Mark Oldenkamp.
He and his wife Laura have a passion for dahlias that few can match, and they have the garden to prove it. Recently, the pair transported cut dahlias from Canby to Ohio for the American Dahlia Society National Show and won several prizes — a fascinating feat.
The two have been growing dahlias since 1983. Back then Laura dragged Mark to a Swan Island Dahlia Show, and he never looked back since. Now, when Mark is not at work farming eggs, chances are you'll find him in the garden off Central Point Road caring for their more than 400 varieties of dahlias — from micro-sized to plate-sized, taking the shape of waterlilies, peonies, anemones, pom poms and more. Mark is also the first vice president of the American Dahlia Society.
In September, for the seventh year in a row, Mark decided he would not miss out on the year's biggest dahlia show simply due to distance. He's one of few dahlia enthusiasts who regularly attempt a long trek with fragile cut dahlias in tow.
"There's not too much participation going long distance," Mark said. "I've kind of started a trend. About six or seven years ago, I took one container, and I just have expanded it from there."
This year, Mark took one small shipping box filled with about 100 blooms. He carefully picked the specimens from the garden on Wednesday night, making sure each bloom had not yet reached its full potential and instead would blossom into something worthwhile in time for the show. He chose only flowers that met a high level of standards, paying careful attention to the shape, color and foliage. He removed the extra greenery and placed each bloom, or trio of blooms, into their own small cylindrical vases within the shipping box.
Then it was time for the flight. Mark dumped the water out just before the security check and moved promptly to the airline lounge to refill the vases with the water that was available, plus a small amount of ice to chill them.
The flight attendants graciously allowed Mark to stow the box of beauties in their own storage closet on the plane for safe keeping.
Upon arrival in Ohio, Mark took the flowers to a cold room provided by a friend of his in the dahlia community. The dahlias had to make it all the way until Friday night, when Mark and Laura would prepare them for competition, and Saturday, when they would be judged.
"I enjoy the amazed look of our dahlia friends when they see you walk in with the box of color," Mark said. "They look with wonder on how this can be done."
Mark said after travel he had 40 strong entries, some of which included triple blooms. Six of those entries would go on to be deemed the best of the best, with a place at the head table. That's the couple's most wins yet for a long-distance show.
"Those of us who grow dahlias and take them to shows were amazed when Mark took a few dahlias in the cabin of the plane for the first time a few years ago," said Larry Smith, past president of the Portland Dahlia Society. "We were even more surprised that one of his entries got a Best of Show award back then. Now, seeing that he accomplished loading 100 blooms onto the plane and coming away with six Best in Show, I have to say that he is one of the more resourceful people I have come across in my 30 years of showing dahlias."
Mark said it's a "thrill" to hear their names announced at the awards event and to be supported by those who wonder how it could be done.
"I try to encourage them to give it a try," Mark said.
Next year, Mark and Laura will make the trek to Washington, D.C. for the national show. The year after that, they'll get a break from travel as the show will be hosted locally by the Portland Dahlia Society.
For those interested in trying their hand at growing dahlias, find out more and purchase tubers online at Portland-dahlia-society.myshopify.com.
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