North American Dahlia Society

My Mentors

by Annie Radcliff (Mrs. R.E. Radcliff) from The Gettysburg Dahlia Society, established 2007.

Note: This is the first in a series of memoirs written by dahlia growers, remembering those who have influenced others by teaching them more about growing and/or showing dahlias.  If there is someone that you would like to pay tribute to, please let us know at ncwdahlias@aol.com. Click here for more about the Dahlia Mentors Program.

Annie says, “….I could write a book (about mentors)…When one looks back over the years to figure how you ended up where you are, at nearly 80 years, there are so many people! Do I love growing or showing or National Shows, or designing or making those monster mass arrangements with all the leftover blooms? Very hard to answer that one….I guess it is the people! Plus, I now have my very first seedling – I think – we’ll see!”

Mentor: a trusted counselor or guide…” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary)
Where to start? Homer and Lillian Beck had a beautiful, very old house on Main Street in Webster, New York. The property sloped down quite steeply to the dahlia patch, which was huge, with beautiful sandy, rich soil. The patch was fenced in against deer, and covered with tobacco shade cloths. The seedling area was further protected, and a super “work shed” for hybridizing,  and full of tags, pens, vials for seeds, charts and great lighting.

The Becks belonged to our church and were also superior rosarians. When Lillian lost her long war with cancer, Homer was lonely. He asked if I’d like to go to a dahlia club meeting. (Dahlia clubs are always looking for new members.) Homer gave superior programs on tuber preparation – how to divide the dahlia clumps, and what to look for when searching for an “eye.” (I thought one of us was crazy, but of course, he was right.) He told of how he and Lillian would cover the windows with newspaper to keep the station wagon cool as they drove miles to shows. Ohio, Maryland – all over, getting on the road at 3:00 am! That was in the 70s and early 80s.

After attending several meetings, I was presented with a few tubers, all white, Paulie Pal (401 M-FD Wh), Brookside Snowball (501 BA, Wh), Magic Moment (2201 B SC Wh).  Homer explained the importance of the classification book, and how to read it properly. He came to my small patch and showed me how to disbud. I was not pleased…he seemed to be attacking my new plants! He showed me how to tie the plants securely to withstand the wild storms from Lake Ontario. The first blooms were a real thrill! Then came SHOWTIME! We worked as a team. I’d check the show tables to find what went where, and I learned how to stage, how to secure the blooms properly to show the flower at its very best, and how to “groom the bloom.” The completed show was so impressive, even in a lowly mall with poor lighting.

The next step was judging. I was allowed to shadow the three judges and listen. They were very kind and instructive – I was exhausted!  The next day was spent at the show site, answering questions from the public – PR work. Awarding the trophies followed, as well as the opportunity to meet growers with whom I’d come to show with us from all over. Then I met J. Arthur Kieffer and his wife Sophie. He and Homer were old pals and each was an outstanding hybridizer. The Baron was Homer’s most famous (3009 BB-FD Pr ‘82) Honka (9202 O Yl, ’90) was (and is) the most famous orchid cultivar of the Kieffers.

Homer asked me to go to the Southern Tier Dahlia Show at the Bath Agricultural Exposition – he said he’d pick me up at 5 am. This is one of the oldest fairs in the country. Dahlias were shown in a 100 year-old building – pure magic – but poor lighting. I helped stage Homer’s entries. The show was held upstairs – I carried! Then we listened to Art and Sophie Kieffer judge. They were tremendous teachers, kind and instructive. They spoke of other giants in the Dahlia World, including Mark Alger. They told funny stories about their show experiences, both locally and nationally. The Kieffers invited me to visit their dahlia patch in Elmira, where they explained how they grew such superior blooms. So many details….amending the soil, fertilizing, cutting and transporting the blooms, wedging the blooms so they present themselves perfectly! Above all, however, these giants of the dahlia world did so with honesty!!

Each of these dahlia mentors have or had 28 cultivars in the classification book, yet they are so humble, so kind, so honest, such superior mentors and I am so blessed to have worked with them.