In the Garden

For the Love of Dahlias

In the hills outside Asheville, a husband-and-wife team cultivates a three-acre dreamscape devoted to a mountain flower

photo: Brennan Wesley

When Bob McLean drives his eighteen-wheeler during long shifts, he sometimes lets his thoughts roam. To his childhood home outside Asheville; to the nearby dairy-cow operation he ran for much of his life; and to the new garden he and his wife, Judy, planted when they took over his family farm in the Blue Ridge mountain community of Mills River. In fact, a drive is the perfect time for mental gardening.

“I can plant flowers and move them here, plant this over there,” he says. When he’s not steering the big rig, Bob has a lot of plants to keep track of—six thousand dahlias covering three acres that he and Judy turned into the oasis they call Poppins Posies (Judy grew up loving Mary Poppins, and the name just came to her one day).

photo: Brennan Wesley

Judy McLean gathers blooms.

Standing under a drizzling sky during one of his half days off the road, Bob clips a flower and lets it fall to the dirt. Careful pruning helps dahlias yield abundantly. Then he lops off another, and Judy describes the scent of the freshly cut stem—like the rain forest, she says. Most dahlia blossoms have no fragrance, but their bright color and large size (the dinner-plate varieties can span a foot) attract bees and butterflies. The plants thrive in the warm days and cool mountain nights, and blast into a riot of colors come summer and early fall.

Just a single dahlia started the McLeans on their journey about fifteen years ago. Bob was making a transition from a life of farming when he picked up the trucking job. Judy was recovering from surgery and, looking to ease her mind with some natural beauty, visited Asheville’s North Carolina Arboretum, which was hosting a dahlia sale. “I saw this perfect coral peach flower, a dahlia called Robin Hood, so I brought home a tuber,” she says.

photo: Brennan Wesley

Staked rows angle toward the rolling fields beyond.

Originally cultivated by the Aztecs, dahlias are perennial mountain flowers that survive until frost. Modern hybrids are best grown from their tuberous roots, which can be divided season after season, yielding new plants. Bob planted Judy’s in a sunny spot near the vegetable garden, and the couple delighted in the blooms’ vibrant color. That fall, Bob dug up the root mass to overwinter it, and split the riches as Robin Hood himself would have done, unraveling six separate tubers. The next year, he replanted all six, and each one blossomed, sparking something in him. “They’re fragile and they’re hard to grow,” Bob says, “but we have an understanding. Dahlias fit me.” 

photo: Brennan Wesley

Bob McLean examines the coral blossom of a Neon Splendor variety.

 

And so it went: Save and propagate over the winter, and replant in rows each spring. “I just number each variety like I numbered my cows,” Bob says. He might recall that row 13 has especially strong stems, or row 12 has darker blossoms, but Judy tries to remember their names—Thomas Edison is an electric purple, and Café au Lait is a peaches-and-cream showstopper. Robin Hood is still in there, too.

photo: Brennan Wesley

The Technicolor whorls of a Café au Lait dahlia.

Although the couple doesn’t do much advertising, word has spread. Judy welcomes the public, charging wholesale for overflowing buckets of blooms and a fair fee for bouquets—name your price. “I wanted the bride who has a modest budget to be able to have her dreams come true,” she says. Sometimes, florists and wedding planners order flowers by the hundreds months in advance, or ask the McLeans
to plant specific colors—deep purples and reds in the fall, and whites and pinks for summer weddings.

What began with one root has branched into a small family business, a joyful way for Judy to spend each day, filling orders and chatting with passersby who stop to stroll among the dahlias. For Bob, Poppins Posies is a side project gone wild. “I never planned to retire, but I’ll get an extra month of vacation this year,” he says, “and I can catch up on my watering and planting and picking. It’s all for the flowers.”


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