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A look inside a Lancaster County flower farm growing 300+ types of dahlias [photos]

Walnut Leaf Farm

Dahlias, like  these Show N Tell dinner plate variety, are showy flowers that shine as summer turns to fall.

Dozens of dahlias grow in Tim Elkner’s garden.

There’s Crazy 4 David, a purple-pink flower packed with cactus-like petals.

There’s Rival, a red flower with rays of open petals surrounding the center.

And Valley Porcupine has pale pink quilled petals that look like they were brushed with hot pink paint.

Every one of these flowers has earned its place in the garden and earned Elkner awards in regional dahlia shows.

By this time of year, he’s usually looking for the best blooms for competitions. But this year, COVID-19 canceled the dahlia shows near and far. One bright side: Elkner’s wife, Kristi, finally has first dibs on flowers to make arrangements for their Marietta home.

Walnut Leaf Farm

“Normally it’s like, there’s a few plants over there that you can cut dahlias from until after the show,” Elkner says. “This year, she pretty much has run of the garden.”

Dahlias might not have their chance to go for best of show this year, but gardeners still love this showy flower that shines as summer turns to fall. Dahlias bloom in a wide variety of colors, sizes and forms.

They bloom from mid-July through frost, peaking in September. These non-hardy plants won’t survive Lancaster County winters and can be grown as annual flowers. With a few steps, a favorite can be saved for years to come.

Thousands of dahlias

Dahlias are part of the aster family and are native to Mexico. Breeders and hybridizers have created a wide range of thousands of varieties. Walnut Leaf Farm near Manheim, for example, grows more than 300 different types of dahlias and sells them at Root’s Country Market.

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The flowers can be smaller than 2 inches or large enough to be called dinner plate dahlias. They can resemble compact balls, pointy cacti, broad waterlilies and more.

Elkner got started in junior high when his parents gave him his own dahlia to grow.

“It was an easier plant to grow,” he says. “It had big red flowers. Everyone goes ‘wow’ when they see them.”

He was hooked.

Walnut Leaf Farm


Now Elkner grows dahlias, shows dahlias and judges dahlias, too. He’s partial to purples and reds, open-center types that attract bees and butterflies along with the showier, large double-flowering dahlias.

While the show dahlias may be pricey and require attention, there are plenty that are easy to grow, he says.

Vibrant colors, cool texture

With so many varieties, it’s hard for Megan Ranck to pick a favorite dahlia. She grows Café Au Lait with peachy-pink double flowers, big yellow dinner plate dahlias and tiny pom pon dahlias. She fits about two dozen different types into the small back yard of her home in New Holland, along with lisianthus, snapdragons, zinnias and sunflowers.

Walnut Leaf Farm

“We joke that soon we won’t have any lawn,” she says.

Ranck grows dahlias for her family and her business, Splendid Flowers and Arrangements. Her flowers have brought home ribbons at local fairs, too.

She makes room for this flower because there are so many variations. Dahlias have the vibrant colors and cool texture to make it a great focal flower. Yet they still have a long vase life.

As she talks about flowers and looks over her garden, Ranck realizes she shouldn’t give them all away.

“I should pick more for myself,” she says.

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