A bouquet of dahlias grown and harvested at the “cut flower garden” at Mercer Island’s Covenant Shores retirement community. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Dahlias bring color, community to Covenant Shores campus

A dahlia farmer who used to sell bouquets for $1 per bunch now gives them away for free to residents of Covenant Shores, a retirement community in Mercer Island.

John Willson, a retired Seattle school principal, used to propagate more than 700 dahlias every spring when he lived on Whidbey Island. He and his wife now call Covenant Shores home, but he hasn’t lost his touch, or his enthusiasm, for dahlias.

Willson, along with other gardening enthusiasts on campus, have turned growing the “queen of cut flowers” into a community activity, starting a residential cut flower garden on campus.

Chaplain Greg Asimakoupoulos came out to do a “blessing for the bulbs” when they were planted on Mother’s Day, and several residents signed up to maintain the garden on the lake shore, helping with everything from harvesting, fertilizing and irrigating to making and delivering bouquets of different dahlia varietals.

It’s all overseen by Willson, who said he enjoys the flowers because he’s seen them bring joy to so many people. Dahlias usually start flowering in August, and stay in bloom for a long time — about 70 to 90 days, Willson said. They also last seven to 10 days in a vase.

“I always appreciated the evergreen state idea, but it’s really beautiful when you add color,” said Covenant Shores resident and gardener Kathy Pearson, who added that the flowers remind her of watercolor paintings. “The dahlias just burst with color… It’s brightened everyone’s day.”

According to the farmer’s almanac, “dahlias come in a rainbow of colors and even range in size, from the giant 10-inch ‘dinnerplate’ blooms to the 2-inch lollipop-style pompons.” Most varieties (there are 55,000 cultivars of dahlias, Willson said) grow 4 to 5 feet tall, and they thrive in the cool, wet climates of the Pacific Northwest.

Willson said that the summer’s record heat and smoke held back some of the growth of this year’s garden, but that he’s already looking forward to the next one. It will take a lot of work in the offseason, as Willson said he prefers to dig his tubers up and store them over the winter, rather than leaving them in the ground.

“A garden will never be as good as it will be next year,” he said.

Willson said he always liked gardening, but was more interested in rhododendrons than perennials until he and his wife attended the Northwest Flower and Garden Show about 25 years ago.

“My wife said I needed a hobby, and signed me up for the [Puget Sound] Dahlia Association,” he said.

Through that group, he met some of the world’s most well-known dahlia growers — “the finest, most generous people you will ever encounter,” he said. Willson and his wife also enjoy photography and teaching classes and workshops, both on and off the Covenant Shores campus.

Willson and other residents have helped brighten the community’s landscape with other flowers, including sunflowers, zinnias and daffodils, thanks to a recent donation of more than 1,000 daffodil bulbs by a new resident couple.

Willson said he likes gardening, especially as a group activity, because “you don’t just get to know plants, you get to know people.” He said his aunt, a rhododendron grower, told him that “if you have flowers, you’ll have friends.”

Dahlia farmer John Willson, who moved to Covenant Shores two years ago, explains the different varietals of the flowers. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Residents at Mercer Island retirement community Covenant Shores work together to grow dahlias and arrange them into bouquets to give away. Katie Metzger/staff photo

The Covenant Shores campus is in bloom thanks to a group of resident gardeners. Katie Metzger/staff photo

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