The Dahlia Brothers
They share a passion for this flower...and their secrets to blooming success!
By Michelle Eigenberger, Greenfield, Wisconsin
More than 30 years of experience—and countless hours of help from his brother Ron—have helped Tony Konczal cultivate his astounding collection of nearly 200 dahlias. Arranged in 15 raised beds throughout his yard in Greendale, Wisconsin, his vibrant dahlias can be seen from blocks away.
As neighboring gardeners watch their flowers wither and fade in late August, Tony's remain as bright as ever from midsummer through the first frost. Staggered planting times, he notes, are the key to continuous blooms.
A Garden Darling
It's no surprise that dahlia growers are passionate about their prized flowers. With more than 250,000 different varieties, and blossoms that can grow the size of dinner plates, dahlias have enamored gardeners since the time of the Aztecs.
But Tony wasn't always a dahlia man. He started out with roses, but soon abandoned them because of their expense and pesky diseases. When a friend gave him a few dahlia tuberous roots to try, Tony never looked back.
"The next day, I went to the hardware store and bought about 100 dahlias," he said. "I went kind of wild on them."
It's the variety of colors, sizes and heights that intrigues Tony. Bloom colors cover a broad range, from deep orange, pink, purple and red to bright yellow and white. Some dahlia varieties, like 'Cupido,' even boast stripes or multicolored rings.
"And new varieties come out all the time," adds Tony. "They're really valuable when no one else has anything like them."
Brothers in the Garden
Tony owes his success to his brother, Ron. Since Tony has physical limitations and can't do much standing, his brother does about 90 percent of the work in the garden. "My brother is 8 years younger," Tony points out. "And he's interested in a lot of the same things I like." Tony takes care of the garden planning, some weeding and the winter storage.
The brothers take great care in arranging their garden. Filling between dahlia plants are onions, potatoes, green peppers and tomatoes, which they're careful to rotate each season. While Tony refuses to use chemical sprays on his plants, he does pour on the fertilizer to keep the soil rich.
"I've got a quarter-acre plot of land," he said. "And I'd have no trouble going through nine bags of fertilizer."
Since Wisconsin winters are too cold for dahlias to remain in the ground all year, Tony and Ron dig up each tuberous root in fall. It takes a week for Tony to cut back all the flowers after the first frost, giving the tuberous roots time to form "eyes" before digging them up. Ron then carefully unearths them up with a bent pitchfork found at a flea market, and Tony begins his yearly storage ritual.
He divides the tubers right away in fall, after he's washed and rinsed them and let them dry out for a few days. That way, the skin isn't too soft, and the eyes are easy to spot. Waiting until spring to divide the tubers, he points out, makes cutting the hardened clump too difficult.
Next, he coats the tuberous roots in a mixture of vermiculite and garden sulfur, a trick he picked up from a doctor in Michigan. The tuberous roots then get wrapped in plastic and piled in buckets between layers of vermiculite.
Winter doesn't provide much of a break for Tony, as he's bringing the tuberous roots back out as early as mid-April. He pots them in tin cans under lights in his basement and begins planting them outside a few weeks later, at a rate of about 25 per day.
Sharing the Beauty
While they're not big showmen, as are many dahlia devotees, Tony and Ron gear up for the Dahlia Society of Wisconsin competition each September.
Participants enter more than 1,000 dahlias, in categories that range from seedlings to floral arrangements. In 2004, the brothers won the novelty double category (dahlias with a fully double center) for a variety called 'Shinkyoku.'
The brothers also share their dahlias with members of their local church. Each Thursday during the growing season, Tony cuts enough dahlias from his yard to decorate the altar for Sunday Mass. Those are the only flowers they cut...Tony prefers to leave the dahlias outside.
"I don't cut any dahlias to arrange in the house," he said. "I can stand right here looking out my window and see hundreds."