Dahlia Legacy Project

By the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers

Dahlia Legacy Profile

At the peak of her career, Jean Knutson was simply the top dahlia exhibitor in the Northwest. She achieved that pinnacle of success through attention to detail, excellent horticultural practices, and a keen understanding of what it takes for a dahlia variety to be a winner. What Jean didn’t have was unlimited space, and since she was only interested in exhibiting and winning, she didn’t waste her limited garden space on “pretty dahlias that are great in bouquets.” (You know the ones we’re talking about.) You see, Jean grew only about 250 dahlias in her carefully tended yard – but they were grown to perfection. She was the poster child for how to win several best-in-show awards per year when growing only a couple hundred dahlias – and not a few thousand.

A farm girl from Stanwood, Washington, Jean would decades later become a member of the West Seattle mafia, a group of Puget Sound Dahlia Association members living in West Seattle – and all dahlia fanatics. Along with Bill Batts, Charlotte Zeller, and others, Jean and her cohorts were movers and shakers in northwest dahlia circles. Long before the internet and certainly before Zoom, the PSDA board met at members’ homes. And typically, that was the comfortable home of board member Jean Knutson. Dahlias: A Monthly Guide followed by Dahlias of Today were all incubated at PSDA board meetings at the Knutson home, our favorite meeting location at that time.

But let’s start at the beginning. Jean was one of three sisters growing up on a dairy farm in Stanwood. No shrinking violet, by age eight Jean was driving a tractor – probably a factor in her “git ‘er done” attitude when it came to raising dahlias decades down the road. The Stanwood High School graduate had met Bill from just down the road in Silvana, Washington and who was scheduled to join the Navy. They married when Jean was only 18 and headed off on a Navy adventure, mostly in California. She reminisced about growing succulents (and not dahlias) in San Diego and raising six whip-smart children.

After Bill retired from the Navy, they moved to Seattle where Bill started his second career at Lockheed Shipbuilding and later, Todd Shipyards. In 1968, Bill and Jean – and their brood of children – moved into that comfortable West Seattle home where they would spend the rest of their lives. When the youngest kid was about to graduate from high school in 1984, Jean determined it was safe to turn the backyard from a playground into a flower garden. She had grown a few random dahlias in the 1970s and decided to grow even more. She picked some up at a local Ernst Hardware (a local chain long out of business); those first purchases were likely tubers supplied by PSDA which sold tubers at several local outlets.

A friend who noticed the dozen or so dahlias growing in Jean’s garden suggested she visit the PSDA show. OMG! She couldn’t believe the display and promptly joined the club “to learn how to grow dahlias.” It was all downhill from there. She clerked at the 1985 PSDA show and suddenly everything came into focus. So far, the only way this story varies from most others is that Jean actually went looking for – and purchased – that first batch of dahlias. Typically, some “helpful” neighbor leaves leftover dahlias on an unsuspecting gardener’s doorstep.

By 1986 Jean was exhibiting dahlias – and winning ribbons. She enrolled in the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers judging program and quickly became a candidate judge. And as most dahlia growers will tell you, that’s where things really come together and judging school participants become much better growers. By 1989 Jean was an accredited judge and then, in the minimum time possible, became a senior judge. Jean was also honing her exhibition skills and her entries started appearing on head tables. By 1988 she placed entries of Camano Cloud, Wooton Cupid, and Kiss on head tables, setting a pattern that would continue: grow winning varieties, groom them to the nth degree, and enter clean, neat, and well-staged entries.

Visitors to Jean’s “plantation” who only knew her from her top-notch head table entries were often shocked when they first saw her dahlia patch. That’s it? There must be more. Nope, you don’t need to grow thousands of dahlias to dominate the exhibition tables. In fact, because Jean grew only 250 plants, she was able to pamper them beyond belief. Every plant was disbudded, disbranched, and deadheaded. There were no weeds growing. Her planting was spotless. In fact, Jean didn’t even cease disbudding after the conclusion of the show season. When this author would express relief that he could finally stop disbudding, Jean would just smile and allow that she liked to keep her dahlias “looking good” and would continue disbudding well into October.

The transition of the backyard from playground to dahlia garden was, as you would expect from Jean and Bill, well planned, precise, and neat as a pin. As in much of the area, the soil at the Knutson home was glacial till, suitable for growing moss but not much more. The Knutsons opted for raised beds filled with rich loam amended with Cedar Grove compost. Jean planted crops of winter rye that were rototilled into the soil in the spring. An occasional application of chicken manure gave quick nitrogen boosts when needed.

Jean studied the literature and was an early adopter of Osmocote, a slow-release fertilizer that went on to become popular in the dahlia world. Jean related that she immediately had huge, healthy dahlia plants. Her exhibits were always up to size, had beautiful, rich colors, and healthy foliage. Jean was certain those attributes could be credited to her use of Osmocote. Needless to say, other Northwest growers were soon following Jean’s lead.

While Bill is often mentioned here, his happy role was as support staff to the Jean Knutson dynamo. Bill lent muscle as needed – think building raised beds and wheeling soil. During show season, he brought her cut blooms down to the basement for conditioning and staging – and hauled the staged blooms back up to the truck for transport to shows. He helped put entries on the show tables – and remove them after shows. And in the fall, he would haul tubers down to the basement for Jean to divide and store. During judging, Bill would wander and observe – but never intrude. And after the show season, Bill would help Jean clean and repaint her exhibition containers and store everything in the garage attic.

Bill and Jean spent many years in the Navy and successfully raised those six kids. Think organization with a capital O. When Bill put away the exhibition containers after the show season, they were washed and repainted as needed. (At that time virtually all exhibits were staged in painted metal containers.) When we say repainted, we mean inside and out. Bill would paint the insides of the cans with a long-handled brush (no rattle can spray paint) so they would not rust or leak. It was the Navy way. When stored, containers would be put up “just so,” staging material would be in its own location, and all sticks that were used to support entries in transit were sorted by size prior to being put away for the winter. At the Puget Sound Dahlia Association board meetings held at the Knutson home, Bill did not participate in the meetings, but was always nearby – usually just off to the side watching a barely audible TV nature program. Bill was not an official dahlia grower, but he was completely supportive of Jean’s endeavors.

When planting time came, Jean was interested in growing varieties that had a proven track record. She also was fond of trying new varieties with good prospects of success on the show bench. Those that had limited – or no – show bench success for Jean quickly made their way to the scrap heap. Hey, she had 250 spots available in her garden so there was no room available for losers. Jean purchased dahlias from many vendors both in the US and England – and was known to make deals with growers from Holland on occasion. But remember, in those days the importation of tubers met with fewer governmental restrictions. Always looking for the edge, Bill and Jean also traveled to dahlia shows in Australia, New Zealand, and England, scoping out varieties that may have success in the Northwest.

Jean didn’t grow dahlias from tubers only. Early on she decided she needed a greenhouse so she could take cuttings – and perhaps grow some seedlings. There, of course, was research involved. I remember Bill and Jean stopping by at the Walker home to check out my greenhouse. They were on the way to visit a vendor in Kirkland, Washington – and they wanted all the facts, ma’am. The greenhouse they installed was well sited, well-constructed, and perfect for producing scores of healthy cuttings each year. Of course.

During the summers, Jean irrigated with soaker hoses. She also grew a dozen or two plants in containers which were watered by hand. Every plant was stopped, disbranched (if needed), and disbudded “by the book.” Jean assumed that if you wanted immaculate show entries her garden should also be immaculate – and it was. Plants were not only tied to keep them upright, but individual blooms were also tied back to prevent them from touching other blooms or foliage. Bruised petals were simply unacceptable. Color was maintained and enhanced using dozens of umbrellas strategically placed throughout the garden.

Jean could be found cutting blooms at sunup every Friday morning during show season. She, of course, was particular and only the most promising were cut. Bill hauled them down to the basement for conditioning. Jean would cut about 300 blooms from which she would stage 65 entries Friday afternoon; she was very consistent with that number. Her entries were a mix of single-, triple-, and five-bloom exhibits. After the temperature cooled on Friday evenings, Bill would haul the entries back up the stairs to the waiting Toyota pickup. Dahlias stems were carefully tied to sticks to ensure no bloom touched another during transport. Your author likes to get to dahlia shows with plenty of time to get entries on the table; Bill and Jean would often be relaxing by the time yours truly arrived, with all 65 of Jean’s entries already set out. It’s that Navy thing.

First-time dahlia exhibitors are surprised by the vast array of implements used to wheel entries into show halls. Wagons are popular, various homemade trollies are used, while some exhibitors simply haul in boxes of entries by hand. Jean and Bill were probably the only dahlia exhibitors – at least in the Northwest – to use a Flexy Racer, a “sled” for snowless areas – like the Knutsons’ days in San Diego. And who else but a retired military guy would use sturdy ammo boxes to transport dahlias? We always got a kick out of those ammo boxes and (in Bill’s words) their “California sled.” One of Bill’s duties was to ensure all sticks were removed from entries; he wasn’t allowed to restage entries.

Once her entries were on the tables – and she and Bill had caught their breath – Jean was famous for looking over the entire show prior to judging to get a feel for the overall quality of exhibits. Whenever possible, she would find out what she was judging and “place” the entries, making sure everything was in precise (of course) order. As you would expect, Jean was an excellent judge and team leader.

Jean often discussed judging with yours truly and was pragmatic about it. She understood that not all judges were competent, and teams would pick the wrong dahlia on occasion. At the same time, she would concede that some of her winners may not have been the best on the table. “It all works out in the end,” Jean was fond of saying. That said, Jean was not averse to buttonholing a judge who had, in her mind, made a poor decision on one of her entries. She didn’t get mad, she just asked for an explanation. She said she hoped those conversations made for better judging.

As mentioned, Jean grew dahlias that won in dahlia shows. She was famous for her marvelous Camano Cloud entries and brought flawless Hamari Accord blooms to shows. When Puget Sound Dahlia Association founder (and dahlia genius) Phil Traff died, the PSDA decided to have a silver medal struck in his honor; Jean was on the PSDA board at the time. Before he died, Phil was informed that the medal was in the works and his only request to this author was that it be awarded “for something important, like the best medium in show.” Done. One of Jean’s biggest dahlia thrills was winning the very first Phil Traff medal ever awarded for a knockout bloom of Hamari Accord.

Like all good Northwest growers, Jean dabbled a bit with seedlings. With only her 250 spots available to grow her show winners, she was unwilling to designate any space for untested seedlings. Luckily, son Jeff lived close by, and Jean maintained over 100 plants at his home. Thus a place for some seedlings and stock that needed to be built up. One of her best seedlings was the medium laciniated beauty, Tiffany Jean that was introduced through Camano Dahlias.

Jean passed away in 2014 while sitting and enjoying the warmth of a beautiful spring evening in her beloved West Seattle dahlia garden. She was near her greenhouse that had produced all those dahlia cuttings. While she didn’t create this list, what follows would be Jean’s recommendations for becoming a top-notch dahlia grower and exhibitor.

Author: Roger WalkerJanuary 2024

  1. Attend to the soil.
  2. Grow winning varieties. If you plan to exhibit – and win – there is no room in your garden for losers.
  3. Learn to judge – you will become a much better grower and exhibitor.
  4. Attend dahlia workshops. You will always learn something – and it will help you keep a step ahead of the competition.
  5. Exhibit, exhibit, and then exhibit some more. You get better with experience. Eight shows a year is about right.
  6. Follow best practices – especially concerning dahlia culture. Disbud, disbranch, and deadhead to a fault.
  7. Keep an immaculate garden.
  8. Be absolutely precise in your growing, cutting, staging, and transport of your blooms. Ensure your exhibition containers are top notch, blooms clean, and there can be no wilting petals. Some of those things aren’t supposed to count in judging, but an overall perfect exhibit is best.
  9. The devil is in the details. See #8.
  10. Don’t waste space in your vehicle with losers.
  11. Continue to learn. There are always new tricks of the trade in the literature. Embrace lifelong (dahlia) learning.
  12. Travel and interact with other experts – you’ll learn new techniques and learn about new varieties.
  13. Git ‘er done. Get outside and groom those dahlias. Right now!
  14. Marry well – apparently a fussy Navy guy (and neighborhood kid) is a plus.

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