For One Gardener, Dahlias Offer Connection and Hard-Earned Joy

Newport's Justin McLaughlin has tended dahlias for forty-five years.

It’s a primary day in Newport and Justin McLaughlin, a city council incumbent, should probably be out campaigning. Instead he’s here, in his Top of the Hill garden hidden by a privacy hedge and a spray of ornamental grass, canvassing his dahlias. He runs a finger down a clipboard with color-coded notes detailing the names, heights and addresses of 238 colorful constituents.
It’s a sign of things to come: After earning a spot on the 2020 ballot, McLaughlin withdraws from the race for, according to a statement, “more time for relationships and flowers” — a move reminiscent of his retirement in 2004 at age sixty, when he says he could’ve worked another decade.

“I learned a couple of things: You can have more money, but you can’t have more time,” he says.

McLaughlin says he makes time for the things he loves, and tending a dahlia garden of this size requires a lot of it. First, he starts his tubers in pots. The flower beds are rototilled and fertilized, and the dahlia starts are planted by size for optimal growing and viewing. When they achieve some height — up to seven feet tall — they’re tied to stakes. Retied. Retied again. (And retied again, but with urgency, if a hurricane is in the forecast.) All the while, they’re deadheaded. Hundreds and hundreds of them. In the fall, the stakes are removed, the stalks cleared, the tubers dug up and hosed off — with warm water, preferably, for hands made weary from the cold autumn earth. When the tubers are dry, they’re categorized, labeled and overwintered in Saran wrap in McLaughlin’s basement. Season after season, year after year, he does it all over again.

“But I’d rather have people think this was all an accident,” he says, wryly.

The detail-oriented side of dahlias would’ve pleased McLaughlin’s father, an internist and Navy captain. If he had grown dahlias, he would’ve had 500 of them, McLaughlin says, and he would’ve remembered the names of every single one — an urge McLaughlin eschews.

“I just want something beautiful,” he says. “It doesn’t bring joy to rattle off those details. The factual information, most times, is not as beneficial as the experiential.”

He leans over to examine a cluster of dahlias in the southern zone of his garden.

“No,” he objects, “this is a pretty flower; it’s red and white. And that one, it’s red and white, but there’s yellow in it, too. And the color that first comes out of the plant isn’t necessarily the color of the flower later in the summer. It’s sort of like Monet in the cathedral in Rouen. You paint it in the morning, and you paint in afternoon.”

The second-oldest of nine children, McLaughlin was raised on thirty acres of land in Marshfield, Massachusetts. His parents cultivated an acre with help from the children, but his mother was more joyful about it, he says. And she loved dahlias.

McLaughlin followed her lead in 1975 when he was working as a naval intelligence analyst in Naples, Italy. While there, he spotted dahlias in a market and decided to grow some of his own. He returned to Newport for work in 1983 and bought his house in Top of the Hill in 1984. The next year, as his first crop of dahlias bloomed, his mother died.

“I picked flowers that morning to take to her in the hospital,” he says. “For years, I didn’t pick any flowers until the fifth of August — the day she died. I’d pick them and put them on her grave in Cape Cod.”

Nowadays, he connects with his mother by tending to his garden as she would’ve: with a wellspring of joy. He also shares it with others. McLaughlin participates in regular Newport Garden Tours and donates potted tubers to Newport in Bloom, the Point Association Garden Sale and friends.

“There are a lot of people in Newport who tell their gardeners, ‘We’re coming in on the second of July and we want the garden to be in full bloom and we want it to be blue this year,’ ” he says.

But McLaughlin’s garden is a riot of hues and textures. “Innocence,” “Raspberry Punch,” “Round-About,” “Bashful”: Each one is a kaleidoscope of color. Dahlias affirm the beauty in our differences, and McLaughlin celebrates them all.

“It’s just sort of an act of discovery,” he continues, “and my job is to make sure the rabbits and the white flies and the Japanese beetles don’t eat them, just so anyone can come to the garden and say: ‘Wow.’ ”