Blooming mastermind: Secret process gives new dahlia colors a sporting chance
Spartacus is a rich dark red dahlia, but Steve Meggos has bred yellow, lavender, orange, white and bicolored flowers with it.
Meggos, who has been growing the big, exotic blooms for 30 years, has come up with nine distinct flowers based on Spartacus, which he prizes for its ball-like shape.
Dahlia breeder offers tour
Steve Meggos invites people to tour his dahlia gardens in Carpentersville.
When: Starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4
Where: 6512 Fairfax Court; take Binnie Road east from Randall Road. Turn north on Huntley Road or Route 30 and east on Lindsey Lane, then right on Fairfax Court.
Call: (847) 450-3491.
His secret: A chemical process he won't divulge that stresses dahlia tubers so they produce "sports" of different colors.
As is often true of great discoveries, Meggos learned about the magic of dahlias by accident.
First, he got into the hobby of growing these lovely giants when someone gave him two tubers for his garden. Then about 15 years ago, a neighbor admired Spartacus, and Meggos gave her a tuber. But something happened that summer.
"She said, 'I wanted a red flower, and you gave me a lavender one."
That led Meggos, who lives in Carpentersville and is the banquet manager for Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, to begin breeding dahlias based on Spartacus.
Vassio Meggos, an award-winning lavender named for his mother and daughter, ranks as Meggos' favorite.
"I like dahlias for their size, color and form," he said, noting some of his discoveries have grown flowers as wide as 13 and 14 inches.
A variegated orange and red is named Harvey Koope for a good friend who passed away. His brother's hair is white, so the snowy one is Louis Meggos. A popular pink is named after his wife, Judy, and an orange will carry his own name. Grandson Austin gets the honor of a red with its petals tipped in white. Stepdaughter Joy expressed appreciation for a purple sport, and one tipped in yellow is the namesake of his sister-in-law Nancy.
When a new dahlia pops up — either as a natural or stressed sport or through selective pollination, it is not considered stable and is not even named until it blooms for four years. Thus most of the 100-plus flowers blooming in Meggos' garden are known only by a number, and he chooses only five or six each year to see what they can do in future seasons.
One of the reasons dahlia sports occur is that genes as far back as seven generations can move to the forefront, said Meggos.
The gardener uses seven different fertilizers on his dahlias, which also need sun and water. He puts a 30-11-11 mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium in the hole when he plants each dahlia, then after they bloom he adds 10-54-10.
And oh, yes, these beauties are not hardy. That means the tubers must be dug up every year after the first frost, washed with a hose and stored over the winter at 38 to 45 degrees. Meggos is lucky because a friend lets him use a greenhouse in Holland, Mich.
Starting in mid-February he works in another friend's greenhouse in St. Charles, cutting and rooting tubers in planting soil. When a plant reaches 10 inches tall he puts it outside.
The weather this year is so challenging that Meggos cut his dahlia plants down to prevent premature blooming.
"With the heat they would bloom too early, and they would be one-tenth the size they should be," said Meggos, who likes plants at least 5 feet tall with blooms 8 to 10 inches across or wider.
And creating new sports is "50 percent luck and 50 percent stress," said the breeder.
"It's just another day in paradise," says Meggos, showing a visitor around his yard. "Dahlias come in all colors except blue. The person who comes up with a blue dahlia will be famous."
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