Two Dahlia Show Competitors Grow a Flourishing Friendship Over 30 Years

Jason Fairchild and Dick Westfall share their passion for growing perfect floral orbs with all the dazzling colors you can expect from dahlias.

Teresa Woodard
Dick Westfall (left) and Jason Fairchild

Jason Fairchild didn’t know much about dahlias until he met Dick Westfall. He recalls their first meeting during his high school hunting days when he was looking to sell some fur pelts to “Mr. Westfall.”

“I came here and was amazed by all these dahlias,” recalls Fairchild, remembering the late summer day he arrived at Westfall’s dahlia-filled backyard in Marysville. Dozens of prize-winning dahlias were lined up in neat rows. Their perfect floral orbs were packed with petals in mesmerizing symmetry. And, their myriad sizes and colors were dizzying—from pink, dinnerplate varieties known for their large sizes to smaller, two-tone flowers in reds, yellows and oranges.

Fairchild was easily hooked on the dazzling blooms and started growing his own dahlias with Westfall’s encouragement.

Tips from a Pro:How to Grow, Water and Take Care of Dahlias

“It’s a flower that provides color all summer starting in July all the way to November,” says Westfall, 88, who has enjoyed an illustrious 50-year winning streak showing his flowers in national championships and the like. Some of his winners are the diva dahlias such as ‘Shirley Jane’ in pale pink, ‘Mrs. Hester A Pape’ in deep red and ‘Evelyn Foster’ in white. He’s even had a large, pink-yellow dahlia named ‘Dick Westfall’ in his honor.

Thirty years later, the dahlias continue to fascinate Fairchild as he grows his own show-quality dahlias at his home in East Liberty. He attributes his success to Westfall.

Jason Fairchild with a 'Bryn Terfel' dahlia in front and a 'Bloomquist Jean' dahlia in the back

“Everything I do here I learned from Mr. Westfall,” says Fairchild, who explains that the two have now competed against each other all over the country. “He wants you to be as good as he is and will share everything he knows with you.”

Learn more about dahlias:

American Dahlia Society

Greater Columbus Dahlia Society

There is a dahlia plant sale on May 15, 2–4 p.m. at Carsonie’s in Westerville and a dahlia show Sept. 3–4 at the Marysville YMCA.

Growing champion dahlias is a serious discipline for these two competitors. Luckily, they bring plenty of horticulture know-how to the floral show world. Westfall retired from a 33-year career in lawn fertilizer research at ScottsMiracle-Gro, while Fairchild runs his own tree service business.

“I don’t think I’ve ever produced a perfect bloom and never will,” says Westfall, who’s gained a critical eye as an official dahlia show judge with the American Dahlia Society. The quest for perfection is unending with the challenges of wonky petals, open centers, mutations and other deviations from the society’s standards for form and size.

Fairchild explains the demanding dahlia season begins in April. He pots dahlia tubers in plastic containers and grows them indoors to gain a jump start on the growing season. Many of the tubers come from his own collection while others are purchased at dahlia shows or through online sources. His garden starts with 300 potted tubers indoors. In the early days of his endeavor, Fairchild’s tubers thrived in the garage under grow lights but now are accommodated in his greenhouse.

Dick Westfall walking through dahlias

In May, he transplants the dahlias in the ground into three separate gardens. They’re planted in rows with boards laid between them to protect the soil and dahlia roots from being compacted. As the plants grow, he ties their stems to stakes to support the impending blooms. By June, Fairchild assembles a cloth house (a hand-me-down from a fellow club member) around the garden of his most prized dahlias to protect them from potential insect damage. Its dark top also helps reduce light by 30 percent to prevent bloom colors from fading. In July and August, Fairchild strategically removes flower buds to reduce the number of blooms yet increase their size.

“Dahlia growers all have different objectives,” says Fairchild, “and for us, it’s to grow as perfect of a flower as we can.”

By late August, it’s time to select flowers for show season—often a whirlwind two-week tour of local, regional and national shows in early September. For the best blooms, he installs umbrellas to protect them from pounding rain and hot sun. A week prior to the show, he attaches dowel rods to the blooms he’ll take to the show. Then, to transport the flowers to the show, he cuts their stems with dowels still attached and places them in 5-gallon buckets outfitted with supportive grids in the base. At the show, he removes all but the first set of leaves of each entry and displays them in black vases on long tables with hundreds of other competitors.

Fairchild and Westfall explain that Ohio has an ideal climate for growing champion blooms only second to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where some of their best competitors dwell.

“Anywhere east of the Mississippi, these four to five Ohio growers take the majority of prizes,” says Westfall who won “Best of Show” at last year’s national championship in Wooster where there were more than 700 entries from all over the country.

“We kid and have fun but come showtime, we all get serious,” says Fairchild, who confesses that the enduring friendships he’s made count more than the prizes.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.