Dude Dehn, fourth generation owner of Dehn’s Flowers and Greenhouses on Beekman Street, starts thinking about the next season at the Saratoga race track in January.
It’s not horse racing that’s on his mind. It’s the thousands of flowering annuals his crew will grow through in the spring and plant as summer approaches.
The numbers are staggering. To get the track dressed up for the season requires 2,630 ‘Yours Truly’ red geraniums, 12,600 impatiens, 5,500 salvias, 2,000 coleus, 2,300 dusty millers, 2,000 German ivy, 2,200 ‘Glacier white’ petunias, 6,200 flowering vinca, plus hundreds of other varieties of annuals.
The Dehn family has grown flowers for the track for at least 50 years, Dehn said.
Family members propagate the geraniums and ivy from cuttings and purchase the rest as plugs — small seedlings that are grown in some of the 20 greenhouses located on two blocks on the city’s west side.
“The plugs come in February and the cutting of the ivy begins in March. The petunias arrive in April,” Dehn said. With all their experience, they’ve got the timing down.
The flowers for NYRA haven’t changed much over the years. The dominant colors have always been the track’s colors of red and white.
Dehn said that after months of preparation, his crew begins to plant in June as soon as the soil is warm enough. “It takes four people about two weeks to install all the flowers,” he said.
Sitting in his office on a rainy day in June, Dude said his great-grandfather — Christian Dehn — emigrated from Germany. He initially established a store on Clark Street before acquiring the swamp land on the city’s west side that would become the family florist and greenhouse business in 1892.
He settled in Saratoga Springs because it was a spa town and his hometown had also been a spa city, Dude said. As soon as he could, he sent for his wife, Sophie.
Over the years, members of the Dehn family have continuously overseen the operation. Dude’s Uncle Richard ran the cut flower part at one time, and his grandmother worked in the store. Today John Mishoe, Dude’s son-in-law, takes care of the greenhouses.
During Saratoga’s gambling days, the Dehns supplied flowers for many of the casinos, including Riley’s and Piping Rock. Dehn said his grandfather was hired to plant cannas outside the Piping Rock Casino. He did the job, but was having a hard time collecting payment.
One day he had had enough. “He took the whole crew with shovels out to the casino. He was ready to dig up every plant. The owners came out in a hurry and paid him,” Dehn said with a chuckle.
During the war, when gas was rationed, Dehn’s made deliveries by bike. Dude has a black-and-white photo of his father sitting on the delivery bike.
Another family story involves Sophie Tucker, a popular singer and comedian through the 1920s. One of the casino owners told Dehn’s to deliver $100 in roses to the star. But when Dehn’s father made the delivery, Tucker tipped him $5 and told him to bring the flowers to the hospital instead.
Dehn’s first memories of the business were of running up and down between aisles of plants, fooling around with the workers and helping to unload coal used to heat the greenhouses from a railroad car that would pull up behind the greenhouses on the spur along Walworth Street.
“I don’t know how much I was helping and how much I was playing. I do remember I would come home covered in coal dust” he said, adding that his mother was “none to happy about that.”
As a teenager, Dehn was more interested in sports than horticulture and said he was fired once by his father. “It was spring — a busy time for growers — and I wanted to play baseball,” he said.
It wasn’t until after he served in the Navy that he decided to become part of the family’s legacy. He was more serious then, showed up when expected and “learned by doing,” he said.
Once he was potting flowers beside his grandfather, Charles Dehn, who he described as a stern man. “Grandpa turned to me and said ‘If you can make your hands move as fast as your mouth you can keep talking.’ I never forgot that,” Dude said.
His grandmother, Polly, was a “little, short woman who ruled with an iron fist” but always had cookies for her grandchildren. “We called them sawdust cookies because they were dry,” he remembered.
Dehn’s not certain exactly how long they have been doing the track flowers but said that when he got out of the service in the 1960s, the family “was doing them then.” Dehn’s has been responsible for the flowers almost every year since.
“There were a couple of years when Schrade did them,” he said. The Schrade family run another long-time Saratoga Springs horticulture business.
While not much has changed in terms of the types of flowers and the colors, Dude said NYRA has cut back a little over the years. NYRA now grows some 11,000 begonias downstate and brings them up to the track. “We plant them.”
Dehn’s also supplies flowers for the trainers’ barns, and for dozens of Saratoga’s fanciest homes including those of socialites, celebrities and horse breeders.
Mishoe said they supply hanging baskets to the horse barns at the track. “NYRA holds a friendly competition in July and August to determine the Barn of the Month,” he said.
Mishoe is next in line to carry on the Dehn family tradition. His roots are in a farming family, but Mishoe’s father was a Navy man and the family moved from place to place.
In time, Mishoe enlisted as well and was trained in the nuclear power program in Milton in the 1970s and later became an instructor. It was during this time that he met his wife, Terri.
After they married, he wanted to settle down and “be home for my kids,” he said. He’s happy he did.
“I went from nuclear power to flower power,” he joked.
And it’s a lot of flower power, Dehn’s has approximately 55,000 square feet of greenhouse space and four people to maintain it. “It keeps us busy,” Mishoe said.
It also keeps them looking ahead. Walking through the greenhouses in June, seedling poinsettias were growing on the benches in preparation for Christmas.