sectionheading

Dahlia Dreams

It started innocently enough, with a few flowers. Now the annual bloom at Love House Dahlias attracts busloads of green-thumbed admirers.

By DK Crawford

 

f dahlias were a religion, Ann and Andy Dunstan would be their prophets. The owners of Love House Dahlias are enchanted by their work, and it’s not because of some bottom line but rather a connection they share with the flowers and what those flowers in turn give back. Their ultimate goal is to share the love by having “at least one dahlia in every yard in Ventura County.”

Walking on their farm during the summer bloom is like visiting a candy store filled with tubers rather than tootsie rolls. Row upon row of vastly diverse Technicolor flowers provoke a sense of wonder. Compact, oxblood red, button-shaped blossoms mingle with frilly orange flounces while precisely folded origami peach pinwheels nod at winter white blossoms as big as dinner plates.

The annual tours at the Dunstan's Foster Park garde attract thousands of visitors.

The Dunstans first discovered dahlias in Washington State, where homemade stands of them line the roads. When they moved into the historical J. Hoover Love House in downtown Ventura in 1994, Ann imported her first few bulbs and was surprised by what she received. “You start out with something that looks like a nasty, scrawny, gonna-go-nowhere potato,” she said while holding up a gnarled brown root

From those first oblong tubers, leafy green plants branched out and blossoms magically appeared. “Each bulb gives so much!” she exclaimed. “What you give to them, they give back tenfold; they just bloom and bloom for months.”

After digging up the dahlia bulbs at the end of the season, they can be cleaned and divided into one to 10 more tubers. They are planted again in the spring, around March, depending on the weather, and bloom through September.

After Ann dug and divided hers that first year, she was hooked. Andy grew concerned about her staying up late at night, looking so serious, and finally asked what was on her mind. “She would literally sit up plotting where she could fit one more dahlia on the property, always looking for just one more square inch she could fill,” he explained. Soon, she’d covered their front and back yards, and even talked her neighbor into plowing up part of his lawn for a bed.

Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva

As the Dunstan’s array of colorful flowers bloomed, a flock of admirers appeared. First, passersby asked to purchase cut flowers; then others stopped to ask how to grow them. One morning the Dunstans awoke to 50 strangers peering over their fence. A tour bus had stopped and visitors stood gawking at the blossoms. “Some were moved to tears,” said Ann.

The Dunstan’s house became a regular stop for the buses. Ann soon began growing blooms for competition and most recently won 47 blue ribbons at the 2008 Ventura County Fair. She has also hybridized, propagated, and named five of her own new dahlia varietals. So far she keeps the names in the family, including one called “Lahti-Da” for their daughter Lahti.

Soon the Dunstans ran out of earth to grow more dahlias at the Love House and Anne started eyeing the roof. It was then that they decided to move Love House Dahlias to a three-and-three-quarters-acre farm on Santa Ana Road, near Foster Park in western Ventura. Now they have thousands of plants rather than 800, and instead of buses of 50 showing up to gawk, over 2,000 people came to their September Open House this year to walk among the flowers and place their orders for the upcoming season.

Their current location is a mélange of boarded horses, goats, ducks, and dahlias all happily co-existing. The animals provide fertilizer and the dahlias bulbs that don’t survive dividing are a special treat for the horses. Anne even uses dahlia bulbs to make bread, substituting them for zucchini.

She is something of an “earth mother,” with sable and silver streaked hair and a wicked sense of humor. As we spoke, she got lost at moments, watching birds bathe in a rain puddle. Andy has a strawberry blonde ponytail, aqua eyes, and a mercurial mind. He wears a St. Therese of Lisieux (the patron saint of flowers) medal around his neck, and has been busy inventing systems for the new farm. Though it’s been almost nothing but hard work since they moved, they both glow when talking about the flowers and the joy they bring.

The Dunstans considered changing the name of their business when they moved, but really no other name seemed quite so well suited. “This is a love house too,” said Anne, smiling at Andy. “How can you go wrong with love?”



SPRING GARDEN TOUR, VENTURA

WHO & WHAT

Ventura Botanical Gardens, Inc. has scheduled its first annual Spring Garden Tour, with proceeds benefitting the Ventura Botanical Gardens project. The tour spotlights four local gardens, which can be viewed in any order.

WHEN & WHERE

Saturday, April 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Post-tour reception with wine, hors d’oeuvres, and music from 4-6 p.m. Reception will be held at one of the featured homes: a Hobson Heights property with a unique mosaic-bottom swimming pool and sculptures by renowned artist Albert Stewart, the property owner’s father.

HOW

Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 on the day of the tour; the price of the tour plus the post-tour reception is $50. Tickets may be purchased at Palermo, 321 E. Main St., Ventura, or by sending a check to Ventura Botanical Gardens, Inc., P.O. Box 3121, Ventura, CA 98006-3127. For more information, see VenturaBotanicalGardens.com.

04-01-2009

Back to top