Swan Island Dahlias grow in Canby; the company was named after a former warehouse on Swan Island.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SWAN ISLAND DAHLIAS
Dahlias are odorless, but famously big and brightly colored; their vibrant, spiky blooms tend to dominate a garden. But the Northwest frost shrivels them completely, and at Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, where there are 40 acres of the flowers, it's as if a light has gone out.
But consolation for gardeners is on its way. Next month, 60,000 dahlia enthusiasts will receive Swan Island's spring retail catalog, which presents about 350 varieties of dahlias in full bloom, in full color. Swan Island has printed a color catalog every year since 1950 and at 68 pages, it's the most comprehensive dahlia catalog in the industry. "The catalog is our specialty. Nobody competes with this catalog," co-owner Nick Gitts says.
Nobody really competes with Swan Island's dahlias, either. The company has the largest farm in the country by about 35 acres. The Swan Island Annual Dahlia Festival in August draws more than 30,000 visitors over two weekends every summer. The farm has made it into the pages of more than two dozen newspapers from as far away as the East Coast and Canada, and was even plugged once by a guest on Martha Stewart's TV show. (Stewart loves dahlias; she calls them "dazzling." The Gittses have their fingers crossed for the day she comes to visit.)
Gitts' parents bought Swan Island Dahlias from its original owners in 1963, when Gitts was 12 years old. The farm has blossomed, doubling its acreage and expanding its wholesale business, which now accounts for almost 15% of revenue. Business was bolstered by advances in dahlia genetics, which extended the life of the cut flowers from two days to five. Martha Stewart's dahlia evangelism also has boosted sales, Gitts says.
Gitts used to put the catalog together unaided, sequestered in his room; now a computer program and a staff of family members lighten the load. He photographs the flowers and his wife, Linna, writes the descriptions: "festive," "reliable," "prolific," "...a late bloomer, but well worth the wait." The rest of the family helps with layout and the brainstorming of names for the new varieties: "Sheer Heaven," "Bluetiful," and "Blah Blah Blah," are among the 2010 introductions. All the Gittses have flowers named after them, individually, as in "Nicholas," "Heather Feather," and "Jennifer's Wedding," and together, as with "Gitts Attention," "Gitts Perfection," and "Gitts Respect."
The 2010 catalog is already available on Swan Island's website, dahlias.com. The Gittses started publishing the catalog online 12 years ago, and web orders now generate a third of sales, creeping toward half. This year, the Gittses dropped their ad in Martha Stewart Living and spent the money on AdWords, Google's online advertising service. Swan Island's revenue — about $1.5 million — has been growing between 5% and 10% every year, which Gitts says is largely due to the Internet.
Sounds like danger for the dead tree catalog, which has mostly older readers. But it will be hard for Gitts to let go if the day comes to go exclusively digital. "I've heard others say they're going to quit printing their catalog. But a lot of people want that paper book," he says. "It's our prize to be able to show off." They send Martha Stewart a copy every year.