So what does a professor of ag education do after 30 years of teaching at Cal Poly? For Joe Sabol and his wife Jill, they raise dahlias, lots of dahlias on their one-acre lot in San Luis Obispo, and every year they walk away with many of the awards at the California Mid-State Fair.
Out of the fair’s 40 classes of dahlia entry options, the Sabols entered 66 dahlias in 33 categories. Needless to say, the Sabols are known as the area’s expert dahlia connoisseurs.
They developed their interest in this beautiful flower native to Mexico after Joe Sabol retired. Entering the dahlias in the fair kick-started their passion to see just what they could accomplish. Now, with 140 dahlia plants in both pots and in the ground, the couple keeps busy tending the plants, each with their own tasks and daily regimens.
Jill Sabol spends an hour each morning “deadheading,” removing spent blooms and disbudding the stems to promote one bloom of optimum size and health per stem. Joe Sabol is in the garden two to three hours each day hand-watering young plants with a water can that he dips into his barrel of rainwater.
The Sabols store 7,200 gallons of rainwater in three storage tanks. Their well water is too hard for the tender plants, but can be used through a soaker hose when plants are more mature.
In order to regulate just how much water each plant receives, Joe Sabol placed two short segments of PVC pipe at the base of each dahlia, creating a cuplike tube. He fills those tubes with the amount he deems the specific plant needs.
When the plants are young, he adds one tablespoon per gallon of water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer to the watering can. When the flowers begin to arrive, he changes fertilizers to a 6-30-30 liquid fertilizer. As he walks and waters, he removes any dead or damaged leaves, insects and snails. “It’s important that we look at the plants every single day,” he said.
Sabol has developed a successful and unique system to fight off the most damaging insect, the Diabrotica 12-spotted cucumber beetle. The beetle is attracted to all colors but seems to favor the white and yellow flowers, where it spends the night.
Early in the morning, Sabol spritzes the white and yellow flowers with a little water spray, causing the beetle to crawl out. He then removes the pest. For slugs and snails, he prowls the dahlia bed with a flashlight at 10 p.m., gathering them by hand.
Cultivating dahlias involves more than just the growing season. In fall or spring, Sabol digs up and divides the tubers and stores them someplace cool and dry.
“There’s no way to guarantee they will not rot,” he said. “One year I stored them in a friend’s barn in Atascadero, and they survived the best.”
Planting starts in April. “You can plant the stored tubers, new tubers or cuttings,” said Sabol. “Dahlias prefer light, well-drained soil and lots of sun, and grow successfully throughout the Central Coast, especially in Los Osos.”
Dahlias are just one of the projects on the couple’s productive property. Their fruit orchard of over 100 trees bears witness to their active membership in California Rare Fruit Growers, where he is program manager and member of the State CRFG Board.
Sabol’s newest interest is raising Pitaya, “Dragon Fruit,” a nutritious and healthy fruit native to Asia and South America that is becoming popular for its antioxidant and cholesterol-lowering effects. With 50 big cactus-looking plants in containers, Sabol keeps busy hand-pollinating each bloom at a specific time so that it will become fruit.
Fortunately for the Sabols, the original builder of their 1958 home had the foresight to install a gray water system, allowing shower, dishwasher and washing machine water to be used for yard irrigation. With their gray water and rain collection systems in place long before the current drought, along with their own well, they were not caught off-guard.
As an honorary member of Master Gardeners and through CRFG, Sabol passes along his knowledge and expertise at workshops for the groups. Even though he has officially retired as an ag educator, he continues to enthusiastically teach and share his years of experience with a wide and appreciative gardening community.
When local residents have a question about anything agricultural, you’ll often hear the answer, “Ask Joe Sabol.”