My wife decided to make a dahlia farm over the remains of the CZU fire — she’s crazy, but in a good way

Karla DeLong amid the dahlias.
Karla DeLong amid the dahlias.
(Via Liz Celeste)

Two years ago, Karla and Daniel DeLong and their two young daughters fled their Ben Lomond home during the CZU fire. Their house miraculously didn’t burn, but they lost hundreds of trees and were left with acres of scorched land. Aided by friends, the community and Karla’s “crazy-cool” vision, they have transformed their property into a dahlia farm “with the sole purpose of bringing color and joy back to our devastated community,” Daniel DeLong writes. It’s open this Saturday to the public.

My wife, Karla DeLong, had always wished our property on the upper flank of Ben Lomond Mountain got more sun.

“I just wanted a little more.” She laughs now, her infectious smile widening. “But what we ended up with, well ...”

It’s been two years almost to the day since Karla, our two daughters and I evacuated our home off upper Alba Road in Ben Lomond during the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Like thousands of other evacuees, we watched online as little red dots indicating heat picked up by satellite appeared on the map of our neighborhood.

It was surreal. We were convinced our house was gone.

I’m a retired firefighter, and shortly before midnight on Aug. 20, 2020, I managed to get through the roadblocks and make it up to our property.

I just had to know.

The entire neighborhood was on fire, and in the end we lost seven of 13 homes, more than half. But, amazingly, our house hadn’t burned.

I did do a very small amount of firefighting when I got there, spraying water on a burning tree that likely would have spread to the house. But it was mostly luck that saved it.

Fire came within 5 feet of our home at one point. It easily could have gone the rest of the way.

The DeLongs' property in Ben Lomond burned two years ago this week.
(Via Liz Celeste)

But while the house survived, the forest that covered the entire west end of our nearly 10-acre property did not. Several hundred large fir trees spread over 2 acres ended up dying and had to be cut down.

Suddenly, my wife had more sun than she knew what to do with.

Except, she knew exactly what to do with it.

My crazy-cool wife’s big idea

When we were first back home after the fire, she went a little overboard with house plants. She even hung them in the windows, because looking outside, everything was so black and burned. She wanted the color back, the green. She needed some beauty.

Karla works at Mountain Feed and Farm Supply in Ben Lomond, where she is a teacher of all things beekeeping and gardening. Growing food has always been her specialty, and dahlias – in addition to being impossibly beautiful and geometrically mesmerizing – are actually edible.

They grow from little tubers, like potatoes. The amazing variety of flowers they produce is the result of selective breeding.

Karla DeLong decided to create a dahlia farm after her family lost acres of property to the CZU fire two years ago.
Karla DeLong decided to create a dahlia farm after her family lost acres of property to the CZU fire two years ago.
(via Liz Celeste)

Let me explain. When cross-pollination causes a new gene expression to occur, either purposefully from hand-pollination or just randomly via the bees, a new and exciting color combination/pattern/shape will emerge. The grower will then name and nurture this new variety. The names can be as awesome as the flowers themselves.

This one is called “Koko Puff.”

The "Koko Puff" dahlia.
(Via Liz Celeste)

Once all the burned trees were gone and our property was suddenly getting massive amounts of sun, Karla told me we were going to make a dahlia farm.

Not just grow a few flowers, but build an actual farm.

It honestly didn’t surprise me at all. My wife never does anything halfway. It was the same with beekeeping.

When we purchased our property in 2007, she expressed an interest in beekeeping. Three years later, she was president of the Santa Cruz Beekeepers Guild.

“Yeah, when I get into something, I tend to go all-in,” she freely admits.

Santa Cruz has the perfect climate for dahlias

Thus, in January, Beeline Blooms was born. We’re a dahlia flower farm with the sole purpose of bringing color and joy back to our devastated community.

Karla started the project by converting one of our bathrooms into a mini indoor grow room, where she sprouted the dahlia tubers she was ordering online.

As soon as I saw a table going into the shower, I knew this was serious.

We began clearing the spot for the flowers – over an eighth of an acre of land. We added a truckload of organic compost, and planted a cover crop of grains and legumes that would grow and then be tilled back into the soil. We created rows with a custom tractor attachment I made from scrap steel and wood. Friends came to help erect fencing, and, ultimately, assist with designing and building a drip irrigation system.

As with her foray into beekeeping, Karla sought out local experts as mentors.

Her words: “Everyone at the Monterey Bay Dahlia Society has been so wonderful, so friendly and helpful. It turns out Santa Cruz has the perfect climate for growing dahlias, and some of the most renowned growers actually live here.”

That includes Kristine Albrecht, Joe Ghio and Kevin Larkin, who have all hybridized many popular dahlia varieties.

The dahlia farm is a DeLong family endeavor, including daughters Adaira and Shaelyn.
(Via Liz Celeste)

Other friends and neighbors came to help, digging the holes, removing the now- sprouted tubers from pots and putting them in the ground.

Here, in fact, was the healing in action: people getting in the dirt, getting dirty, reimagining a burned place and doing the work to make something beautiful grow.

Karla mapped out the flower locations in rows, by color, so from above it looks like a rainbow.

The DeLong dahlia farm.
(via Liz Celeste)

How crazy-cool is that?

And, of course, the bees love it, too.

We lost about 10 hives to the fire, roughly half our total. We’ve added a few more since then, and they’re all digging the flowers as much as the humans are.

Beeline Blooms, my crazy (but good crazy) wife’s vision, is open on select Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The first day is this coming Saturday, Aug. 27.

Daniel DeLong supported his wife's "crazy-cool" plan for a dahlia farm.
(Via Liz Celeste)

The entry fee is by sliding-scale donation ($20 is suggested), and survivors of the CZU fire enter for free. All proceeds from the first season will be donated to the rebuilding of the Little Red Alba School House, a historic building on upper Alba Road that was lost to the fire. It had been our neighborhood community center, and seeing it rebuilt will do a lot to heal our community.

And that’s what this entire project is about: making something joyful for our community.

Karla wanted to create a place where people can forget the traumas of the past few years and just be surrounded by beauty.

Mission accomplished, I’d say.

Come by Saturday and judge for yourself.

Daniel DeLong, his wife, Karla, and their daughters, Adaira and Shaelyn, share their family farm with two dogs, three cats and a constantly changing number of chickens. In addition to helping his wife realize her visions, he enjoys tinkering with machines, playing guitar and writing. He has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for over 30 years.

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