Dahlia Legacy Project

By the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers

Dahlia Legacy Profile

Jean Heeringa is often noted as the namesake of Paul Bloomquist’s stunning hybrid Bloomquist Jean dahlia but Jean and husband Ron Heeringa are the hybridizers of the Vista line of dahlias that are now offered at many U.S. and Canadian flower farms. 

Ron and Jean (nee Wagter) married in 1988 and not only did they have a mutual devotion to each other, but they have deep family roots in the Whatcom County area as both grew up on dairy farms, sharing a rich Dutch heritage that is celebrated in the area.     

Ron Heeringa and Jean left their families farms but would eventually be drawn back into flower farming their beloved dahlias.  Family patriarch Ron went on to operated Bode’s Precast Inc. before passing away in November 11, 2015. The company is carried on his sons, Ray and Rick Heeringa, who are also the step-children of Jean.  Jean, born in 1941, worked for many years as a registered nurse in medical facilities throughout the area and often in a surgical capacity assisting in physicians or taking charge of the recovery room. 

Jean doesn’t remember when she started growing dahlias. “My mother had dahlias and I grew up with dahlias,” she recalls of her early life on her parent’s Lyndon dairy farm. So, it was only natural that when she had her own garden, she continued planting dahlias. 

“Dahlias were really what got us together,” says Jean, as she met Ron through family members and realized their common love for the flower. “I lived in Seattle and he was in Lyndon. His daughter and my younger brother were married and they introduced us. Dahlias were the common chapter sort of to speak.” (They were both also strong Seattle Mariners baseball fans). 

Jean and Ron’s first dahlia farm was on Vista Drive in Ferndale and became the first  plot for developing their Vista line of dahlias that would go on to earn many show ribbons. They then moved to their Birch Bay-Lynden Road farm of five acres in 1997, where they delighted those passing by with rows upon rows of blooming dahlias during growing season. The fields were awash in color.    

Jean and Ron worked together 

Ron and Jean made a strong team. Ron did a lot of the heavy work and Jean’s interest moved to hybridizing as she attended dahlia society meetings, gleaning information.  “He was my support,” says Jean as the pair planted 2,000 tubers and 2,000 seedlings each year while at the five-acre property.  

Jean says they moved into hybridizing because it became another interesting facet of growing dahlias but also claims she was not the ideal hybridizer.  Hybridizers keep meticulous records of what two dahlias were cross-pollinated and would work towards achieving different traits. “I never did that,” she says. For Jean, it was a more natural approach. She gathered and planted the seeds. The Birch Bay-Lynden farm had two sections: tubers and seedlings.  

During the growing season, the seeded dahlias would unfurl their first flower heads and bring surprises. Jean would venture out each morning to walk the rows looking for new variations.   

“The ones I liked, I would tie a ribbon around,” Jean says. She looked for blooms that had interesting variations of a form for show candidates or colors that would appeal to those looking for cut flowers.  The dahlias selected by Jean would have the tubers dug in fall for retrial next year. The remainder would be tilled under to make way for a new batch of seedlings the following year. Jean estimates she saved only one in 50 of the plants that emerged from the seeds collected and planted.  

Jean and Ron originated approximately 15 Vista varieties. They are named after family members.  The varieties include: Vista Whitney, Vista Minnie, Vista Char, Vista Pinky, Vista Lindsey, Vista JD, Vista Cody, Vista Kestyn, Vista Brett, Vista A-rod and Vista Pet, Vista Linda, plus two – not mentioned – expected to be introduced in 2023 or later. 

Jean’s favorite form is the elegant stellar dahlia but she also liked the laciniated form and these are reflected in the Vista line, where varieties have won multiple ribbons in American Dahlia Society (ADS) shows.  Vista Lindsey is a yellow laciniated dahlia introduced in 2004 which has won 30 ADS ribbons. Vista Minnie, a novelty fully double dahlia (dark-blend in color) and introduced in 2011 has won 47 ADS ribbons and an ADS Medal D. 

Ron and Jean were also able to bring some novelty blooms into the market. Vista Cody is a small novelty purple bloom that has a soft barbed on the petals. Vista Pet is another novelty that has a soft barb on the petal. 

Marketing the farm’s yield

Coming from farm backgrounds, Ron and Jean knew there was more to growing dahlia than simply for shows and quickly learned the economics of running a dahlia farm on a five-acre plot.

Jean had strong connections with a many of the local florist as local individuals, both came to pick for special occasions, especially weddings. “It was always interesting to see what they wanted. I would then plant for those wedding colors that seemed popular such as the white and pastel colors,” Jean recalls. 

As well, the couple had a flower stall selling bouquets of cut dahlias. “It gave us a pretty good idea of what sold and what didn’t. The bi-colours, they would always sell well,” Jean says.  

Ron and Jean sold tubers through the Whatcom County Dahlia Society, where Jean in 2023 holds the second oldest membership and serves as a director. She has also been an active member of the Fraser Valley Dahlia Society, serving as a clerk on occasion during the Fraser Valley shows. . 

The five-acre farm produced thousands of tubers which not only had to be dug but also had to be cleaned for storage. It was Ron who came up with a solution to automate the tuber-cleaning process. It gave new meaning to the phase ‘skip the dishes’. 

“He found an old dishwasher and dryer from a Burlington hotel,” Jean tells. The unit was revamped to handle tubers rather than dishes. “We just put the dahlia tubers through the dish-washing machine.”  

Today, she is amazed at how popular dahlias has become with gardeners.  

Growing and showing advice 

 With Ron’s death in 2015, the five-acre farm became too much for Jean to handle alone so she moved in 2016 to a house in Lyndon with a large back yard. There, working on hands and knees, she plants the 180 dahlias in a garden patch that measures 45 feet in length and 18 feet wide. Her rows hold 30 tubers with 15 stakes per row. 

She spaces her stakes three feet apart and digs a hole on each side into which she places a tuber. She prefers to work alone during the planting process because – as many other dahlia growers can attest – it is too easy to get the dahlias mixed up.  Her favourite garden tool is a hand-trowel with saw-tooth edges, which makes it easier to cut through the earth. She uses a special black plastic stake with a steel plate that easily allows one to step the stake into the ground.   She arranges her rows according to height so that the taller plants are in the back rows. 

Dahlias are big feeders and fertilization is important. She uses yards of compost on the dahlia patch providing a rich, tilled soil. But she also puts a 16-16-16 fertilizer in the hole to feed the newly-planted tuber. It is mixed with soil so that the fertilizer does not burn the tuber. “I don’t like to over- water,” she says, adding usually ever two or three days when needed. Watering is done in the mornings and never in the heat of the day. 

Harvesting the tubers is a favourite time for Jean, who enjoys the process of seeing the tubers that will bring next year’s crop of new blooms and old favourites.  “Not the digging but the separation of the tubers – dividing the clumps,” she says, adding that the process of dividing the tubers harkens to her professional skill as a registered nurse and it is very much like a surgical procedure. 

Jean has been an active participant in Whatcom County Dahlia Society shows in Bellingham, where she is the ADS representative, but has also shown in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Dahlia Society shows. She has also exhibited in an ADS national show. The COVID pandemic placed a halt on her show activities and in 2023 she is no longer sure that she would go back to showing, perhaps leaving it to others to carry on.  But, her favourite section was the ADS seedling bench which looked at new introductions.

When Jean took blooms to the show, she cut them in the field early in the morning and trimmed them in warm water while the stems were submerged. The blooms destined for show were kept in a cool and dark area until they were ready to be staged.  In transporting the blooms, she used wire pipe-cleaners to keep the stems from jiggling and also used C-clamps to keep the stem firm against the supporting stake.

In 2023, Jean was still collecting seeds but gives them away to friends rather than trialing new varieties. As well, the tubers from her home garden patch go to friends and into the Whatcom County Dahlia Society’s tuber sale to help raise club funds. She looks forward to attending the meetings and the workshops, especially after the long winter, as it provides an opportunity to meet and chat with long-time friends and other dahlia growers.

 “They are the friendliest people and so willing to share knowledge,” Jean says, adding the friendships also lead to members swapping tubers to try out.   

Jean’s garden today has several rows of the Heeringa Vista line but also holds some new varieties as well as old favourites such as Jennie, a laciniated light blend. “It was the first flower that I ever won an award with,” she says, looking back to the days when she was a novice. That win was the beginning in a long career of capturing award-winning ribbons.   

As for the back-story to Bloomquist Jean? That large flame-colored dahlia that has captivated judges and dahlia lovers? Hybridizer Paul Bloomquist and Jean are both long-time members of the Whatcom Country Dahlia Society, the place where they first met – although Jean has been in the society for three months longer than Bloomquist. 

 They found they were both individuals with a strong religious background, although they do not attend the same church. “Our faith in the Heavenly Father would have made us best friends – even if it had not been for the dahlias,” she says.  Bloomquist’s backyard also butts onto the property of Jean’s sister. So when Bloomquist Jean was developing, Jean saw it and greatly admired this large bloom. 

“I liked it so well and wanted it so bad,” she recalls.  Bloomquist had named many of his derivatives after friends. So, laughs Jean, “I almost begged him.”  Bloomquist Jean was born – proving Jean has an eye for a winner.

Interviewed by Jean Sorensen – May 2023

Hall of Fame

Currently not a member of the hall of fame


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