What We Learned in 2023 and Are Changing for 2024

2023 was an amazing year! As always, with my "go big or go home" strategy I have made a lot of mistakes quickly and learned the lessons needed. Here are the primary takeaways and do-betters:

  • Better Tuber Storage: In January 2023 we had the "teenage tuber freezing incident". One of my teens who will remain unnamed left the garage door open in single digit cold weather which froze some of our dahlia tubers. Good news: we are no longer storing our tubers in the garage! We bought a 20 foot insulated shipping container. It is holding temp well but now we are battling 99% humidity so dialing that in will take a bit of effort. Already we have learned that we need to blow off most of the dirt and cut the stalks down farther.
  • More U-Pick, Less Bouquet Making: This year I focused on getting visitors on the farm to pick flowers, rather than investing more labor into bouquet making or markets. I made about the same amount of money for virtually zero labor. For 2024 we will expand our u-pick but separate our tuber production field. The 2024 u-pick will be all wild harvested dahlia seedlings along with some zinnias, statice and sunflowers. We will focus more on having on-farm events, with a goal of making this a community gathering place.
  • Streamline Tuber Shipping: I'm pretty sure I made 50 cents an hour when all was said and done selling dahlias in 2023. I had too many redundancies and "touched" things too many times throughout the dividing, storing, packing and shipping process. This year, tubers will be stored very simply in plastic bags with vermiculite. I will not individually pre-package or pre-label them for selling. When I go to ship an order I will pick straight from storage, label them and put them in the shipping box for that customer.
  • Reduce QR Code Labeling in the Field: My individual QR code labels worked exactly as planned but were a ton of work. I will not be individually labelling all of my plants with QR codes in 2024. All new tubers and cuttings that I order in will get individual QR labels. I'll also be doing a trial garden of one of every variety that I grow and those will be individually labeled with QR codes. Everything else... no QR and no individual labels.
  • More Seedlings & Better Hybridizing: In 2023 I discovered my love for dahlia breeding! I experienced so much pure delight roaming the seedling patch looking for treasures. I planted about 600 seedlings from randomly collected seeds from my own dahlias. About 80% were closed centered which was a win! This year I gathered seeds from specific varieties and labeled them so that I can observe traits in 2024. Next year I will have a breeding patch in a separate field and practice hand crossing blooms. My teenage daughter also caught the dahlia breeding bug and will be leading the charge for our hybridizing goals. Stellar dahlias are her favorite form. Pompons are my favorite form. Our goal is to plant 1200 seedlings in 2024.
  • Optimize Tuber Production: In 2024 we will have a separate tuber production field that is not open to the public. My u-pick dahlia tubers will not be sold in my online store. I won't be lifting my u-pick dahlia field clumps from year to year. All of my field maintenance will be focused on the tuber production field. I'll also be consolidating my varieties to only the most lucrative types. It takes the same amount of effort to plant, tend, harvest, dig, divide and ship $30 KA's Rosie Jo as it does $5 Cornel Bronze. So in terms of time for money, I'll focus on tuber production for mostly unicorn varieties.
  • Pulse Watering: We had warm weather very early last year after a super cold late winter. We also had a slightly drier spring and summer. Typically, watering dahlias deeply once per day was fine but in 2023 I tried pulse watering. I watered 30 minutes 3 times a day on drip in the very hot weather. It helped immensely! My plants were absolutely enormous and the amount of tuber rot I saw in my heavy clay soil was reduced. I'll be pulse watering in 2024 for sure. I may experiment with overhead watering in as well.
  • Pest Management: I sprayed regularly with OMRI listed insect control before bud-set this year and it helped immensely. I did not have any major problem with aphids or thrips once the dahlias started blooming because I think I eliminated them in the larval stage. Once the pollinators were busy in the field, we switched to a systemic insecticide via drip which only effects sucking insects. I did, however, still have a TON of cucumber beetles. I'm going to experiment with trapping for those in 2024. They are more unsightly than anything because they eat the petals. We are putting up more bird houses and bird baths for 2024 as well. Hopefully the wrens and swallows will help keep down the beetle population.
  • Data Tracking with SmartSuite: I transitioned from tracking in Google Sheets to SmartSuite databases this year. This has allowed me to track amazing data like time to bloom, average seed pod yield, culling statistics and hopefully in depth tuber storage info. I have three databases that I use regularly: a dahlia catalog which lists all the varieties I have ever grown, a field database which has an entry for every plant I grew in 2023 and a seedling database where I am tracking my hybridization.
  • More Dahlia Friends & ADS Involvement: This year I joined my local dahlia society and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I attended meetings and I entered dahlias in shows for the first time. I won several blue ribbons and a few section awards but I did not make the head table. In 2024 my goal is to make the head table by entering only stellars, poms, mini balls and balls. This aligns with my hybridizing goals. I want to learn the perfection of these forms. In 2023 I attended an ADS judge training and clerked for two shows. I learned a ton simply by listening to senior judges as they evaluated the entries. My goal for 2024 is to become an ADS Candidate Judge.
  • Realistic Virus Control: I'll admit to being a bit of a nihilist when in to comes to virus control in dahlias. According to the ADS virus testing research, an average of 87% of healthy dahlias have at least one dormant virus. To me, that means we can never eradicate dahlia viruses unless we destroyed the entire dahlia stock in the US and started over. Therefore I have chosen not to waste money on prohibitively expensive dahlia tests. I assume 87% of my field is infected. The primary vector for virus is aphids and thrips, I sprayed very heavily for these pests prior to flowering in 2023 and will do that again in 2024. I also culled for clear virus patterned leaves all the way until first frost and did not lift any clumps until after freezing to make sure I was able to catch last minute signs of disease. Slightly less than 10% of my field was culled for suspected virus. In 2024 I will add another layer of protection for the tuber production field by closing it to the public. I'm also going to experiment with a wireless hot knife for cutting stems to eliminate sanitizing solutions.

Products I Loved in 2023:

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