A Conversation with Erin Benzakein, author of ‘Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias’

Erin Benzakein talks with LJ about growing flowers for your home, her new book about dahilas, and books she suggests to others. 

Florist-farmer Erin Benzakein’s new gardening guide is out this month: Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias: A Guide to Growing and Arranging Magnificent Blooms (Chronicle Books). Benzakein is the founder of Floret Farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley. She spoke with LJ about her favorite easy-to-grow flowers and the difficulty of selecting only 360 varieties of dahlia (culled from a list of almost 600) to feature in her new book.

The pandemic has made untold numbers of readers into beginning gardeners, and many would like to be able to grow just enough, just well enough, to create a single bouquet a week for their home. Can you suggest some easy-to-grow selections and advice on the numbers of plants needed?

Dahlias, of course! Dahlias are one of the most prolific and rewarding cut flowers you can possibly grow. If I were to advise a brand new grower, I would say skip the dinner plate and novelties your first year and instead start with ball-shaped varieties. A few of my longtime favorites are ‘Cornel’, ‘Jomanda’, ‘Crichton Honey’, and ‘Snoho Doris’.

Here are a few more of my favorite go-to flower recommendations that are easy to grow across a wide variety of climates and can be started from seed. I would recommend growing 10–15 plants (or more, if you have the space) of each variety to have enough to harvest enough blooms for an abundant bouquet each week.

Zinnias: As one of the easiest cut flowers to grow, zinnias are a perfect flower for beginning gardeners. Available in a brilliant rainbow of colors, these happy blooms are a must-grow for any flower lover.

Celosia: These heat-loving flowers come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and forms, ranging from a crested cockscomb that my kids call a “brain flower” to spiky, plumed forms that are great accents for bouquets.

Cosmos: These cut-and-come-again flowers are a staple of the cutting garden, and the more you harvest them, the more they bloom. A single planting will produce an abundance of airy, delicate, daisy-like blossoms for many months. You can arrange them on their own or weave them into mixed bouquets.

Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa): These plants have adorable, button-like blooms that look great in bouquets and thrive in the heat. Freshly harvested flowers can last up to two weeks in the vase, and they are also great as dried flowers.

Basil: Foliage forms the backbone of a bouquet, and basil is a great easy-to-grow (and edible) option to mix in with your flowers. Some of my favorites include:

● ‘Aromatto’ is a handsome variety that features tall, deep purple stems, glossy bicolor plum-veined leaves, and amethyst flower spikes.

● ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’ has bright green foliage and white flowers that can fill a room with its clean, citrusy scent.

● ‘Cinnamon’ is a lovely variety featuring dark purple flowers atop green leaves and chocolate-colored stems.

Do you have some beloved plants you would put in any garden you ever own?

It is hard to narrow it down to just a handful of plants, but there are a few flowers that are particularly meaningful to me. Sweet peas will always hold a special place in my heart, as they are the flower that really launched my little flower business. But dahlias are the stars of the farm and what we are best known for at Floret. I can’t imagine a garden without them.

Your book has a number of useful visual guides. What did you learn from putting those together that you did not know before you started to think about dahlias in such a systematic way?

I thought that writing a single-subject book would be somehow easier than the wide-ranging topics of my last two books on flower growing and arranging. Focusing solely on dahlias seemed much more straightforward at the start. But in reality, the project proved to be incredibly complicated and very layered because we did a deep dive into all things dahlias.

The “Variety Finder” section of the book was especially difficult, as we photographed and wrote descriptions for nearly 600 individual varieties—a project that we’ve been working on for a number of years. And then we had the painful task of narrowing down our favorites and sorting them into a streamlined color order, even though they don’t neatly fall into straightforward categories.

The book was originally only going to feature 200 varieties, but after documenting so many amazing varieties, there was no way to cull the list down that hard. So after some negotiating, we eventually got our publisher to increase the page count, which allowed us to feature 360 varieties in total.

Making the book stretched us in so many ways—mentally, emotionally, and creatively. But the day I held the finished book in my hands made all of the 4 a.m. writing sessions, weekend photo shoots, and endless hours of editing worth it.

Can you suggest other flower gardening books (or books about flowers) that you have personally enjoyed or admired?

On Flowers by Amy Merrick

Flowers for the Table by Ariella Chezar

In Bloom by Clare Nolan

The Cutting Garden and Grow Your Own Cut Flowers by Sarah Raven

Do you read for pleasure in your free time? If so, can you list three books you have read and enjoyed (on any subject or from any genre)?

Life in the Studio by Frances Palmer

Ranch Raised by Mary Heffernon

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

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