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Dahlias With a Difference – Hollister House Garden

Where do the experts turn to fill the garden’s midsummer gap? At Hollister House, it’s dahlias to the rescue.

George Schoellkopf holds strong convictions about dahlias and he’s not afraid to air his opinions. Actually, he’s cool with dahlias of all stripes in other people’s gardens. You and I can grow flouncy dahlias galore in any color that strikes our fancy and Schoellkopf will stand back and applaud our efforts. But at Hollister House Garden, his dahlias must jump a whole lot of hoops. So perhaps Schoellkopf can be forgiven his stiff dahlia vetting process. After all, dahlias play an intrinsic role in Hollister House Garden’s summer and late season display. He wouldn’t want to fudge such a critical post.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of strolling Hollister House Garden, you must visit. Nobody does season-long interest like Schoellkopf, who plays every moment of our all-too-brief growing season to the hilt in the 25-acre landscape he’s been working in Washington since 1979. Lapping at the ankles of his historic 18th century house and influenced by the classic romantic gardens at Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and Great Dixter, he ingenuously translates the allure of those grand estates to the Litchfield Hills using tall walls and magnificent clipped hedges to heighten the mystery, segment his space, and tease the allure. When most other gardens are mired in a lull, Schoellkopf suits up Hollister House Garden for an extended hurrah that continues well into autumn. No wonder his opus became a nonprofit in collaboration with the Garden Conservancy in 2005 to preserve his hard work and design savvy.

For sure, Hollister House is strong on structure and the hedges are enviable by anyone’s standards. But deep down inside, Schoellkopf is devoted to flowers and nothing does it like dahlias at a time of year when most perennials are in a swoon. Dahlias lend a certain panache. They have grace, style, the proper color repertoire, and they integrate. They offset other elements of the garden with just the right flair, importance, and weight. Dahlias can usually be depended upon to fill their slot and continue pumping out color on a regular basis. Get the right varieties, and colorful bronze foliage can also be part of the color story. Needless to say, Schoellkopf selects varieties with all those desirable traits.

What are his criteria for dahlias? First and foremost, double dahlias need not apply. Schoellkopf pooh poohs the dinnerplate types that cause the rest of us to palpitate. Perhaps because they need staking to support the heft of their flowers on the hollow stems typical of dahlias, maybe because they are look-at-me prima donnas that do not necessarily merge seamlessly with other dance partners (or as Schoellkopf puts it, “They are like disruptive people who call attention to themselves”), he dislikes the large-flowered types. Instead, Schoellkopf goes for open-faced single flowering varieties such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and ‘Happy Single Kiss’, among others. From a practical perspective, the lighter weight flowers of singles
do not require staking and the tubers store easily over the winter.

Needless to say, Schoellkopf also holds strong convictions concerning flower colors. Pink is not permitted past the gates. That hue would fight with the palette of reds, oranges, bronze, blues, and purples that prevail. Fortunately, the full rainbow is at your disposal (except true blue) with dahlias. His chosen hues include fervent, suffused shades that work well in concert with their neighbors. The result is borders packed with garnet red dahlias beside self-sown purple-leaved perilla. The dahlias are inserted annually into borders that are filled to the hilt with perennials and self-sown annuals. Then he grooms the dahlias judiciously. It’s all carefully orchestrated by head gardener Krista Adams who spends her days laboring over the display. When you’re one of the premiere public gardens in the country, you need to sweat the details. But basically, there is no wrong way to do dahlias. Go to Hollister House to gather ideas. hollisterhousegarden.org



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