By now you probably already know that I love beautiful gardens and have a special affinity for artists. You can imagine my excitement to read this article from the Cottage Journal Summer 2016 issue about Sus Miller and her gorgeous dahlias. She is a Maine-based artist who brings her colorful garden to life through watercolor.
Text by: Tovah Martin
Photography by: Kinda Clineff
Sus Miller admits that she’s a binge gardener. She has been besotted by peonies, captivated by iris, fascinated by phlox, and ditto for daffodils, daylilies, and roses. But when a friend handed her five dahlia tubers, she didn’t really see infatuation in her future. In fact, the gnarly little tubers seemed singularly unpromising. Not only did she not know what to expect from a dahlia, but she also had no idea what colors were coming.
For an artist, wildcard hues are a dangerous gamble. So, rather than risking a clash with the spectrum already in place, she tossed the dahlia tubers into a newly dug garden on the ocean side of her home in Kennebunkport, Maine, framing Marshall Point. By the end of the summer, she was sending for reinforcements by the box load. Another binge was born.
Sus readily admits, “It spun out of control.” But who can blame her? She found the ideal midsummer bloomer with a presence sufficiently magnificent to frame the water. “They are luscious,” Sus says with delight. Although the identity of her gifted dahlias remains a mystery, she swung into collector mode immediately and ordered up representatives of each group of dahlias from the pom-poms to the collarette, waterlily, anemone, cactus, singles, and peony forms.
Of course, she had to try a dinner plate dahlia to be diplomatic (and the champagne-colored Café au Lait is undeniably irresistible), but she frankly found those immense, 10-inch flowers to be unwieldy. Her preferred flower size runs in the 4-5 inch range with blossoming starting in midsummer and continuing nonstop until autumn. They follow on the heels of lilies planted in the same bed, and thanks to the moderating coastal climate in Maine, she can often sustain the show until November.
Meanwhile, the dahlias have become the muse to inspire Sus’s watercolors. She consulted her inner artist to select hues that complement the vast ocean panorama. But her dahlias serve a dual function. The shades she selected also combine with her Oriental carpets indoors. By working in the red, orange, coral, white, pink, and honeydew realm with a few deep purples tossed in for good measure, she covers all the bases. She finds the ball-like configuration of pom-poms to be particularly endearing, but they defy her attempts to fit their form gracefully into bouquets. Although the vase life for dahlias is only four to six days, with a ready bounty at her fingertips, Sus can refresh the arrangements continually.
Learning from her experience with the original seemingly unpromising starts that she was given, Sus now stores her tubers over the winter to produce more buxom plants. After frost, they are whisked into the basement and stashed in black garbage bags with a little soil to keep them from drying out.
There they rest through the winter until late March or early April when she pots the tubers into containers to grow under lights. By mid-June her Maine coast garden has warmed sufficiently to receive the plants. The tip is removed to encourage branching, the ultra-sandy soil is amended with generous compost, and the dahlias are placed where they are buffered from brisk ocean gusts by a hedge of native shrubs framing the water. Lashed with twine to sturdy bamboo stakes, they soldier on despite the wind. “They are such robust plants,” Sus explains.
By late July, the dahlias are the stuff of dreams. Not only does the easel come out with regularity to document their glorious performance, but dahlias adorn every nook and cranny inside the Millers’ beachside house. “It’s such a luxury to pick your own bouquets,” Sus enthuses. Currently, the dahlias have eclipsed all of Sus’s other infatuations because, as she says, “They inspire worship.”
Have you ever grown dahlias?
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What a delight!!! I do envy her talent as an artist and being an avid gardener!!! What a gift to behold… God bless her passion… I too would love to see her work… I have never grown Dahlia’s but I must say it is very tempting. Thank you once again Phyllis for sharing this blog with all of us.
I wish we could have seen a painting by Sus. That would have really helped complete the story.
I have never tried to grow Dahlias but after seeing those beautiful blossoms, I will at the very least consider them. Gorgeous!!
My earliest memory of dahlias dates back to my childhood. My parents hosted our family reunions in the summer as we lived in the country and the extended family was huge. I don’t remember what Grandma brought to add to the meal, but a bouquet of dahlias from her flower garden graced the picnic table…a precious picture in my minds eye.
I am so jealous. I live in Northern California in an area with a high water table and a heavy clay soil. I love peonies, sweet peas, lilacs and anything else that smells heavenly, but can barely get a spade in the ground. Fortunately sweet peas, and planted shallow. Unfortunately, as soon as it gets hot, and it will get very hot, they are gone. To have good dirt and artistic talent, is stuff dreams are made of.
I discover dahlias last year and fell in love. I have my first bulb sprouting this year. I just hope it can survive the heat of Florida.
My mother always saved room in her vegetable garden for a long row of dahlias…after the iris, they were my favorite childhood flower. Extra work to dig and winter them over in the basement, but worth it!
I am so impressed. So much work, though the payoff is big.
I love my Cottage Journal…. Summer.
When it arrived, I quickly finished the work I was doing, put the water to boil, made my tea and with an ahhhhhhh sat down to enjoy the beauty and articles of Cottage Journal!!!
If you have not subscribed….do!!! It’s a vacation in itself!