By Kellyn Yoder
By day Jerry Schoenauer gets his hands dirty with the pipes of Goshen College’s toilets, showers and water fountains. He sends out orders for new pipes that will replace the damaged ones and makes sure the water runs in the right direction. However, when evening arrives, Schoenauer finds himself among the red, orange and pink dahlias in his back garden.
After talking to a friend on the subject of gardening, Schoenauer attended a dahlia flower show at the Concord Mall. He still remembers taking in the scene: hundreds of dahlias in reds and peaches and purples and pinks.
“From there,” said Schoenauer, “dahlias went from being a hobby to an obsession to a business.”
Schoenauer was impressed by the flowers’ beauty and decided to purchase his own dahlia starters. These starters or dahlia tubers then multiplied into gardens full of flowers, which Schoenauer began to sell for a profit.
Schoenauer’s business, run from his home in Middlebury, now provides consumers with over 200 forms of the flower. Schoenauer explains that having a business on the side of a full-time job is quite challenging, but not stressful – especially during spring and summer.
“After I get home in the evening I go straight into the garden until dark every night,” he said. “But I love every minute of it, and my wife is a big help.”
In addition, Schoenauer hires his own helpers to weed and lay mulch in the garden. Jeff Stoesz, a student at Goshen College and one of Schoenauer’s helpers, noted that the extra business is more of a way for Schoenauer to relax rather than being a project that is too much work to handle.
“He always talked about his garden as his escape from the house and other responsibilities, as his restful place,” said Stoesz.
Schoenauer purchases supplies of dahlia tubers from across the United States, England and New Zealand. These tubers are similar to potatoes, which send out shoots under the ground that can multiply the number of plants that appear aboveground. Schnoenauer then plants the tubers in May, which grow and bloom in July.
Before the dahlias have a chance to start growing, Schoenauer attempts to create new varieties of the flower. He does this by planting two different varieties of the flower next to each other in hopes that they will cross-pollinate. However, this process of creating new dahlia varieties does not always have the intended results.
“It’s a surprise every time they bloom,” said Schoenauer. He explains that he might be expecting a plant to have white flowers, but when the buds actually open, they might reveal a stunning pink or red.
While the flowers are at their peak blooming period, during the month of July, Schoenauer travels with his flowers to several dahlia shows. To make the journey, Shoenauer places several plants in containers and then places these containers in the back of his van.
“After that I tie them into position,” said Schoenauer. Now that his creations are carefully seat-belted in, he is ready to go to shows in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio or closer to home in northern Indiana.
At these shows, the flowers are placed into different classes according to the American Dahlia Society’s classification book. The best flowers in each class are placed upon an honor table. Schoenauer said that the advantage of having plants on the honor table is that other growers are more likely to purchase them from you. Almost every year Schoenauer has some of his own plants sitting on that table.
After the first frost sometime in October, Schoenauer takes the tubers back inside his house. Around late November he then places an order form on his website and ships the tubers out in April. These tubers can cost anywhere from $5-$25 a piece. Since each tuber multiplies into many more tubers, Shoenauer is able to sell more tubers than what he started out with at the beginning of spring.
Schoenauer explains that the recent recession has not had any effects upon his business. He states that most of his customers are retired and have the time to develop the passion of flower growing.
“It takes a lot of time and care to grow these plants, and so people purchasing them are more likely to have the time to do so,” said Schoenauer.
Schoenauer explains that in Washington and Oregon there are 40-acre dahlia farms that he helps to supply with new tubers every year. These larger farms are then the main competitors in the cut flower business.
Local gardeners can purchase Schoenauer’s cut flowers at the Goshen Farmers’ Market at 212 Washington Ave. in Goshen. Or you can visit his Web site at www.jsdahlias.com to place an order.