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OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / The Joy of Dahlias




Stormy Mayo grew up in Provincetown; his family has been here since the middle 1600s. Stormy is a founder of the Center for Coastal Studies, a world-renowned scientist studying and protecting North American right whales, and is also famous for his dahlias. Laura Ludwig, Stormy’s wife and a leader in removing marine debris and educating about plastics pollution in the oceans, is just as passionate about growing dahlias. Until the first frost, their gardens gracing busy Bradford Street in Provincetown are still in bloom.


(STORMY) I've had an interest in growing things. My doctoral research was on raising larval fish. (In Miami, Stormy was a senior scientist at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, but quit to come back home and follow a dream to build a schooner.) And so when I came back here without much to do, I became interested a little bit in gardens. My first wife, who has now passed on, would do some gardening. It was mostly flowers, but it was simple stuff. 

Two years before she died, she started growing two dahlia tubers. Literally, the morning that she passed away, she was in the emergency room in Boston, I drove back here around one in the morning. I was kind of stir crazy. What do I do? I mean, it's very intense moments. And for reasons that were not as romantic as they sound, I ran into her two clutches of dahlia tubers, and I literally planted them in the backyard of the guest house, where there really wasn't enough sun, and grew them that year. It got me started, and it has just spun since then.

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(LAURA) If you decide you want to grow dahlias, you kind of have to be committed. The easiest way to grow a dahlia is to go to the store and buy a tuber and put it in the ground in May. And you can do that. But if you really get into it, you find that you want more than that.

(STORMY) A lot of the tubers I have come from those early years, when I made cuttings in the fall in people's gardens. I went so far as to wear dark clothing. I’d scope out plants by walking along Commercial Street. There were a few dahlias there. The first cutting that I succeeded on was called Arabian night. It's almost a black dahlia. And I snuck around with the scissors and made the cuttings and succeeded in getting it to live.

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(LAURA) He jokes about it, and I think he mostly gets permission, but I always call him the stealth cutter! 

I grew up gardening with my family in Northern Vermont, and gardening never included flowers for me that much, because we just always had vegetables. When I first came to Provincetown, when Stormy and I first started dating over 10 years ago, it was the winter, and the front yard looked ridiculous. There were sticks lying on the ground everywhere. And there was black tarp, and there was a bunch of dead plants. And I was like, What is this? I went into the house, and there on this beautiful dining room table was a blue tarp and more dirt than you could imagine. And I thought to myself, Oh, I could never live with this! I was thinking, Well, I've got to help him with this, ‘cause clearly this is a lot of work.

And then I realized he had a basement. I'm like, Why aren't you doing this in the basement? So we carved out a little area. And over the past nine years, basically it's become the dahlia workstation. And it's very, very functional. And you can eat upstairs in the dining room without dirt on the table!

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(LAURA) The dahlias were always abundant, but this year is definitely a corker. My husband is extremely good at propagating things. And so he just went nuts! Over the past couple of years, I've been making bouquets, sticking dahlias in old vodka bottles from The Muse (restaurant) and just putting ‘em on the fence. People make donations. And this year, Stormy felt really strongly about conveying our thanks to everyone who was buying these dahlias, because it’s allowed us to really invest in the gardens. So, he wrote a little script, and I wrote it out on a big piece of wood. And we stuck that out there by the street, so people can know that we just love that they love the flowers. It makes us feel so good, and their contributions create the color. 

People have a certain idea of how dahlias are grown. They can be so formal. They can be so beautifully perfect, whereas the dahlia gardens that we have are a little bit less tended, a little bit less tamed. But the end result of our slight neglect is a profusion of color. 

Well, we actually have seven gardens, but the two primary gardens by the house are definitely wild. I think that's the biggest virtue of the gardens actually, that you can get lost in them, and you just are surrounded by plants that are taller than you, flowers that are just every color. 

This time of year for about three or four months, I look forward to every morning when I wake up. I actually wake up extra early because I want to get outside. I want to just play in the garden before the day starts. I have really small clippers that are sharp, and I go out, and I do all my deadheading, and I just see what has bloomed overnight. There's always something new, and it may not be that it's a flower. It may be that you find a toad in one of the flowers, or you see the bees working on these flowers. It is fantastic! And the monarchs, the other butterflies, the tiger swallowtails. there's just so much life in these gardens.

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(STORMY) After the first really dense frost, the dahlia tops are killed. All the beautiful stuff you see, all of a sudden by noon of the next day after a frost, everything is black. It feels like the harbinger of winter, sort of Game of Thrones, winter is coming. And then I dig the tubers, usually, but not always, with a lot of help. A lot of people love these dahlias, and we give them tubers in return for them digging.

(LAURA) That's like an all-hands-on-deck event. It's usually around Christmas by the time we get to it. We can probably dig one garden in a day, so it will take about a week to dig them all.

(STORMY) It's a big operation. This year, it's going to be a huge, because we've increased the size of everything. We're more at a commercial level than we ought to be, and it's all for fun. We should have around 900 tuber balls, and those are big. They may be a foot in diameter, and there may be 30 tubers looking like elongate sweet potatoes in each one. Let's say there are something on the order of maybe 20,000 tubers. I don't count ‘em.

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(STORMY) You know, I'm a bit obsessive. Before the dahlias, or while the dahlias were coming into place, I was obsessing about building a schooner. It was a 30-year obsession. In life, I think one of the wonders is when you've got an obsessive passion that keeps you sane.  One of my obsessions is right whales. And it actually now keeps me alive, so I can be obsessive about schooners and dahlias.

The whales do carry this unbelievable mystery. We do not understand what goes on with these animals. I have more access now to North Atlantic right whales as anybody on earth, because they come here in the greatest numbers. I can say genuinely, they are an absolute mystery. Where do they mate? We don't know. Where are most of them right now, such a rare animal? Everybody wants to know and try to protect them. Right now, there may be 50 or 60 right whales that are being looked at. That means there are 340 somewhere out there in unprotected waters, and we have no idea where they are. If you don't know where something rare is, you probably don't know much about it. 


So that mystery is a powerful draw for me. And I think there is mystery in dahlias.

When a shoot pops free, there's a discovery. There are probably 15 cultivars that I've been working on and have not yet bloomed. There will be a discovery in the next few days of some of those blooms.

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(STORMY) Of course, I spend most of my time, not in the gardens, but in my cellar. In the middle of the winter, that's where the work really happens. I put piles of single tubers in trays with sediment over them, maybe 20 different types in one of these wooden trays that I've built. And then I go through a whole winter of watering them. What I'm trying to do is to get them to send out shoots much earlier than they would normally. I tell them, basically, It's spring, when it isn't spring, and they put out shoots. I think I gain a little bit of time, but I got a feeling the reason I do it that way is ‘cause it really is fun.

Because of COVID, I didn't have much else to do. I spent hours in my cellar, and the amount of labeling that's involved is huge, and learning how to label, and what labels work. There are all these little ridiculous things that only a fanatic could possibly do.

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