Text by Tovah Martin
What could visually compete with the infinite ocean while complementing the bright blue sky? For artist Sus Miller dahlias are the answer.
Sus Miller admits that she’s a binge gardener. She has been besotted by peonies, captivated by iris, fascinated by phlox, and ditto for daffodils, daylilies, and roses. But when a friend handed her five dahlia tubers, she didn’t really see infatuation in her future. In fact, the gnarly little tubers seemed singularly unpromising. Not only did she not know what to expect from a dahlia, but she also had no idea what colors were coming. For an artist, wildcard hues are a dangerous gamble. So, rather than risking a clash with the spectrum already in place, she tossed the dahlia tubers into a newly dug garden on the ocean side of her home in Kennebunkport, Maine, framing Marshall Point. By the end of the summer, she was sending for reinforcements by the box load. Another binge was born.
Sus readily admits, “It spun out of control.” But who can blame her? She found the ideal midsummer bloomer with a presence sufficiently magnificent to frame the water. “They are luscious,” Sus says with delight. Although the identity of her gifted dahlias remains a mystery, she swung into collector mode immediately and ordered up representatives of each group of dahlias from the pom-poms to the collarette, waterlily, anemone, cactus, singles, and peony forms. Of course, she had to try a dinner plate dahlia to be diplomatic (and the champagne-colored Café au Lait is undeniably irresistible), but she frankly found those immense, 10-inch flowers to be unwieldy. Her preferred flower size runs in the 4-5 inch range with blossoming starting in midsummer and continuing nonstop until autumn. They follow on the heels of lilies planted in the same bed, and thanks to the moderating coastal climate in Maine, she can often sustain the show until November.
Meanwhile, the dahlias have become the muse to inspire Sus’s watercolors. She consulted her inner artist to select hues that complement the vast ocean panorama. But her dahlias serve a dual function. The shades she selected also combine with her Oriental carpets indoors. By working in the red, orange, coral, white, pink, and honeydew realm with a few deep purples tossed in for good measure, she covers all the bases. She finds the ball-like configuration of pom-poms to be particularly endearing, but they defy her attempts to fit their form gracefully into bouquets. Although the vase life for dahlias is only four to six days, with a ready bounty at her fingertips, Sus can refresh the arrangements continually.
Learning from her experience with the original seemingly unpromising starts that she was given, Sus now stores her tubers over the winter to produce more buxom plants. After frost, they are whisked into the basement and stashed in black garbage bags with a little soil to keep them from drying out. There they rest through the winter until late March or early April when she pots the tubers into containers to grow under lights. By mid-June her Maine coast garden has warmed sufficiently to receive the plants. The tip is removed to encourage branching, the ultra-sandy soil is amended with generous compost, and the dahlias are placed where they are buffered from brisk ocean gusts by a hedge of native shrubs framing the water. Lashed with twine to sturdy bamboo stakes, they soldier on despite the wind. “They are such robust plants,” Sus explains.
By late July, the dahlias are the stuff of dreams. Not only does the easel come out with regularity to document their glorious performance, but dahlias adorn every nook and cranny inside the Millers’ beachside house. “It’s such a luxury to pick your own bouquets,” Sus enthuses. Currently, the dahlias have eclipsed all of Sus’s other infatuations because, as she says, “They inspire worship.”