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Dahlias a dream come true for Petaluma farmers

Kate Rowe had a high paying, high prestige job. But as she toiled at her computer, the Illinois-bred daughter of a hardware seller dreamed of dahlias.

Beautiful balls and big bodacious dinner plate blooms in colors as vivid and varied as gum balls.

But she never dreamed she could ever make a living cultivating and cavorting among these bedazzling flowers that brighten up the garden in late summer and early autumn.

But then one day, as she was sitting in a salon chair, she confessed her secret dahlia fantasy to her hairdresser and was floored when the woman told her, “That’s funny. I know someone who has a dahlia farm for sale.”

Fast forward two years and you will now find Rowe in blue jeans and a leather tool belt, living her dream at the corner of East Washington Street and Adobe Road in Petaluma. Here, with her life and business partner Omar Duran, she tends a field filled with 5,000 dahlias all popping into bloom in the hot August sun.

She is inexplicably drawn to their variety, their intricate symmetry, and just because they’re so darn cheerful.

The field lends new meaning to the term eye candy. Rowe and Duran have planted purposely in successions of color, from cool to warm, with a visual break of white. Each type of dahlia - there are 20 classes of dahlia and many sub-classes - is planted in double rows in this color pattern.

She and Duran grow more than 400 varieties for the fresh cut market as well as tubers for those who want to grow their own.

This flower field she dreamed into being is a long way from the 34th story office in Chicago where she worked in investment banking, a high-stress job she was lured into taking but never liked. “Late at night we’d be there past midnight and you’d see all of these lights on and people bent over their desks. Everyone was unhappy and miserable,” she said.

Rowe figured there must be something better and headed to Northern California eight years ago, only to find herself drawn to yet another stressful job with large scale event production, which took her to places like the Superbowl, the Olympics and the Maker Fair.

“Again I found myself sitting at a computer stressed out most days,” said Rowe, who confessed to never feeling quite comfortable in that world.

But it was during that time that she discovered her first dahlia at the farmer’s market in Occidental and became hooked, eventually building a collection of 120 on her property in Freestone. But she figured she didn’t have enough for a viable flower farm.

“It felt like a pipe dream,” she said. Then opportunity fell into her lap.

Jamie and Rosa O’Brien, who started Aztec Dahlias more than 15 years ago as a hobby business, were getting ready to sell. Duran and Rowe took a huge leap; Duran, a pro bike builder, left his job in bicycle repair. Rowe followed. They started apprenticing under the O’Briens. But the previous owners wound up ready to sell faster than Rowe and Duran anticipated. They were thrust into full ownership right at peak bloom in August last year.

But with the shared wisdom and mentorship from some of the best in the business, and their landlords, Jaime and Lupe Vaca, landscapers who installed an irrigation system for them, Rowe and Duran hit the ground running. They are now into their first full season. They opened the flower stand in July and expect to be open into October.

It is the only strictly cut flower dahlia and tuber dahlia farm in the area, said Rowe.

She sells straight out of the field, by special order to event planners and designers and the general public, and at farmer’s markets and the Sonoma Flower Mart in Sebastopol.

Rowe talks fast, moving from flower to flower like a bee, exclaiming over the geometric form of one, the lacy petals of another. From the lollipop perfect balls to primeval cactus dahlias, to dahlias with lacy tips to the mysterious black dahlias with names like “Black Beauty,” “Rip City” and “Bewitched.”

There are minis and giant puffballs like “Belle of the Ball.”

“Each one is incredible,” she says.

“This one looks like a watercolor,” she exclaims, pointing to “Salsa Picante” with is fiery color and re-curved petals.

The best time to shop for dahlias is now to ensure the best selection. Rowe welcomes people to walk the field, and take note of what they like while it is blooming. Orders can also be made online at aztecdahlias.com. The best time to plant is April.

Because their soil is heavy clay, Duran and Rowe pull up every tuber at the end of the season, mark them and divide them. They get five to 20 new tubers from each one. They store them in paper bags placed in wood shavings in a barn. Ideal storage temperature is 45 degrees.

Dahlias like well-drained soil, so if you’re blessed with it, leave them in the ground. Rowe amends her soil with a compost mix with bone meal, but says dahlias really aren’t picky.

She adds one feeding of slow-releasing fertilizer. Don’t over water them.

Rowe said she finds them “mesmerizing.” But their exuberance also makes her feel “present.” The sight of something so beautiful stops you, and keeps you in the moment. “When I’m around them I’m really here,” she said.

“There’s something about them that is magical. And they’re like us. At the start they have all this potential.

Rowe said she still works long hours. But it’s time joyfully spent.

“I want to provide a space where people can come and feel better having been here, regardless of whether they are present to that or whether they even know it is happening,” she said.

“And then they get to take a piece of that home with them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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