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Mary's Farm: Phantom Dahlias

Mary’s Farm: Phantom Dahlias
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A man down the road grows dahlias, the magnificent and ancient starbursts of color that in northern climes only really dedicated gardeners will grow. Ted and his wife, Wendy, are schoolteachers in another state. Several years ago, they bought this small dormered Cape as a summer place. It faces the mountain and was at that time surrounded by bare, uncultivated ground. Once they purchased the property, they wasted no time in turning up the soil and planting a flower garden, which now rises up from behind the stone wall in colorful display, causing the occasional car to slow as it passes.

Less prominent but no less spectacular are the dahlias. On a triangle of land across the road from the house, with the full vista of Mount Monadnock as backdrop, Ted opens up a long row into which he places the tropics-loving tubers (once beloved by the Aztecs) that will later in the summer become a broad stripe of color across the cool New England landscape. They grow tall, their flowers opening in almost any color you can imagine: tangerine, lemon chiffon, Mexican orange, blood red, pure white. Some blooms are as big as dinner plates, some as small as crabapples, but all of them blaze in vivid hues.

Ted’s uncle, gone now, gave him some dahlia tubers to get him started long ago, before Ted brought his gardening prowess to this hill. Now Ted grows something like 175 plants in his long, narrow garden–90 or so varieties–
but the ones from his uncle bloom purple. Ted says that when they open, it’s like seeing old friends. He believes that
flowers are connections to people past and present.

When I drive by, I see Ted down there in his colorful paradise, communicating with his old friends, human and
floral. He works steadily, long hours, his bare back browning in the sun. A few years ago, Ted added a beehive and painted it a bright, sunny yellow. While he works, the bees buzz from bloom to bloom as he steps carefully from flower to flower, fussing, tending. During the summer, he ties their bobbing heads to tall stakes to keep them from falling over (some of them grow seven feet tall!), and he weeds around their roots, waters them if it’s a dry year. His yield is terrific. They’re in full flower all summer long.

Most gardeners (including myself) think dahlias are too much work: planting the delicate tubers in the spring, digging them up in the fall, tagging them for variety and color, and storing them in the cellar until spring. It’s a notion that Ted scoffs at. He says only, “The earth smiles in flowers.” He loves the joy he gets from just watching them grow–and he especially loves sharing his dahlias with others. While he’s working, sometimes he’s thinking about who in town might enjoy some of this color in a vase on their table. “I like to make people smile,” he says.

On Sunday afternoons, before leaving to go back to their other life, Ted and Wendy fill their car with bundles of these dazzling flowers and start out on their route. As if on angel’s wings, they make their phantom deliveries. Occasionally during the summer, while I’m working at my desk, I hear someone on the porch, the dogs barking a bit. By the time I get out there, no one’s there, but a big, showy bunch of dahlias on the table greets me. Or, if I’m not home, this is what I come home to. Believe me, I smile.

Edie Clark reads selections from her “Mary’s Farm” essays on her recently released CD, Night Sky. Order your copy, as well as Edie’s books, at: new.YankeeMagazine.com/store or edieclark.com

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