Dahlia Days

Over a decade's time, Carolyn Tanner cultivates a breathtaking dahlia garden at her Highlands, North Carolina Retreat

When Rhett and Carolyn Tanner bought their house in the Highlands, North Carolina, area 16 years ago, little did they know—thanks to Carolyn’s green thumb—what a breathtaking retreat would evolve. “I don’t know why it’s always referred to as a ‘green’ thumb,” she laughs. “It’s really black; I always have dirt under my fingernails!”

In fact, the second home of these Atlantans is surrounded by a lush mix of plants, trees and flowers. “We have a crab apple orchard with 16 trees that give us thousands of apples in fall, as well as some old apple trees that bear fruit that make great apple sauce,” says Carolyn, surveying the property. “We also have boxwood, English Yew, knockout roses, peonies, iris and enough herbs in the garden to cook with.”

Carolyn’s pride and joy, though, are her dahlias. She first tried growing them in Atlanta but found that the climate was simply too warm. Highlands, on the other hand—at an altitude of 4,200 feet—is practically perfect; the flowers love the dry but cool conditions. And the proof is in their profusion: Since planting her first bulb 10 years ago, Carolyn has watched her dahlia garden grow to 275 plants.

Specifically, she grows Dinnerplate dahlias, measuring 8 to 10 inches in diameter. And if the size of the blossoms isn’t enough to impress you, the height surely will. “I’m five-foot-four, and the plants grow as tall as I am,” Carolyn says. “In fact, you have to stake them to keep them from falling over. The dahlia is a tuber; its stem is hollow in the center. So you have to use stakes to keep the plants alive, to keep them standing up straight and the water flowing.”

The dahlias bloom from the end of June until the first frost. Yet, the garden is a year-round project. “Each bulb you plant, at the end of the season, becomes 10,” Carolyn explains. “I divide them, then put the bulbs in heavy containers with a moss concoction between layers and store them in the basement close to the furnace. You can’t let them get too cold!”

Once that task is completed, Carolyn can start thinking about next year’s garden. And each year, she turns to the resource that’s guided her since she bought her first bulb—Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, Oregon. “I add about 25 to the mix every year,” she says. “I order the latest variety, whatever they’ve just developed.”

Although the color palette may change slightly from year to year, the pleasure this garden gives Carolyn is constant. “Going out in the early morning, walking among the rows and hearing the birds, is like being in church,” she says. “It’s just beautiful.”

MAIL-ORDER SOURCE FOR DAHLIAS Swan Island Dahlias, P.O. Box 700, Canby, Oregon 97013. dahlias.com