At 80, Eugene Pettis has a little trouble moving about. “My knees are gone, ankles too,” the blue-eyed gardener said.
Still, he enjoys his Clifton Park garden, and tending to his garden is part of his story. Pettis, who was born in Saratoga Springs, once grew roses for Jackson and Perkins, an internationally known mail-order rose company. “This yard once had hundreds of roses. It was my hobby,” he said.
Pettis earned his livelihood working in construction. “I worked on churches, houses. There are a lot of barns I jacked up and saved,” he said.
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Today, Pettis grows dahlias, which he admits need a lot of care. “They are a problem,” he said. “Varmints like them — moles, chipmunks, mice.” And they are trouble to keep from year to year, as they need to be dug up after the first killing frost and, over a period of weeks, prepared to be stored over the long winter months.
Like all gardeners, Pettis has his tried-and-true method of caring for the tubers. After the first killing frost, he cuts the tops off and lets them rest in the ground a few days. Then he digs them up and sets them out to dry in the greenhouse with labels to identify the color and type. Over the course of several weeks, he will spend a little time each day removing the soil from around the roots with an old brush. The process is painstakingly slow and requires care not to scar the tubers with the brush.
Pettis waits to store the tubers until every bit of soil has been brushed off and the tubers are clean. “The dirt holds moisture, which will cause rot. Believe me, they get can get the idea to rot fast enough without any help from dirt. You have a better chance of keeping them if you clean them well,” he said.
Once the dahlias are as clean as they will get, Pettis bags them in rough sawdust. “Sawdust made by a chain saw. It’s coarser,” he said.
He keeps the dahlias in the cellar where the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Come April 1, he pulls them out, pots them up and sets them out in his greenhouse with the thermostat at 50 degrees.
By Memorial Day, they are ready to plant in the ground. They start to bloom about mid-July and continue for months.
This season, Pettis is going to take the bottoms off five-gallon buckets and replace the plastic bottom with wire mesh. He intends to plant the dahlias inside the bucket and bury the bucket about halfway into the ground.
This should keep the varmints out. “It’s worked before,” the ex-Marine said. “It should work again.”
His garden of dahlias contains about 40 different varieties. “Enough to bring bouquets to two doctors’ offices every Monday and still have enough to enjoy myself,” he said.
Does he have a favorite? “Favorite? No, how could I? They are so different. Each has a personality and I like them all.”