Dancing with the Swan Island Dahlias

September 11, 2015 (Updated June 21, 2018)

Instead of tiptoeing through the tulips, how about dancing with the dahlias? Just outside Canby, a half mile down Birch Road, after the pavement turns to gravel, the Swan Island Dahlias offer a riot of color.

Third-generation dahlia farmer Heather Gitts-Schloe says, “I like to walk the fields and see what nature gives us because the experience is amazing and pure joy and pure relaxation.”

Each day, well-trained hands cut more than 1,200 bunches of dahlias (a dozen dahlias to a bunch) to fill hundreds of orders that the flower farm receives from florists. Heather’s father, second-generation dahlia farmer Nick Gitts, says anyone can visit the farm and watch the harvest: “Everything here is open to the public from daylight to dark. As a result, we get many thanks from visitors – those are the rewards that we enjoy for all the hard work we put in.”


Some orders for fresh cut dahlias go to distant locations overnight, but most go in water buckets to the Portland Flower Market, where florists turn the gorgeous blooms into special gifts. “Dahlias work in so many ways,” notes Gitts. “There are so many varieties; you have little round buttons, water lily shapes, giant 12-inch blooms and it’s that variety that makes dahlias really unique.”

Three generations of the Gitts family have worked on the 40-acre farm since the early 1960’s, when Nick Gitts Sr. and his wife, Margaret, bought the property and the business. Young Nick likes to say that he learned about growing dahlias from the ground up!

Today, fresh cut flowers account for 90 percent of Swan Island Dahlias’ worldwide business, considered the largest in the country. Not bad for an Oregon family farm!

The farm’s annual Dahlia Festival, held the last weekend of August and Labor Day weekend, shows off 400 dahlia floral arrangements. Behind the scenes, I learned that many of the dahlia flower names are special too.

“We get to name a few every year,” says Gitts-Schloe. “That idea really reaches back to my childhood and my grandparents who wanted to name new varieties after family members. So, I have a dahlia and it’s named “Heather” from when I was a baby many years ago. We are really known in the dahlia world for fun names!”

Heather Gitts-Schloe’s “Heather” offers a punch of peach, salmon and apricot and it is a stunner. Her grandparents were certainly proud!

Dahlia blooms simply make you feel good. Across the grounds, there are 360 varieties and more than a thousand of each variety create an ocean of color that is inviting to stroll. The Gitts family likes to say “a beautiful garden is a work of heart,” and they have mastered it well.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.