August 29, 2008 in Features

Delightful Dahlias

Thanks to Claudia and Dennis Biggs, VA hospital garden blooms with peace
By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photo

Above: Claudia Biggs prunes unwanted flowers from the dahlia garden at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane. Among the 175 dahlias planted in the garden include an Aitara Diadem, below left, and the Skipley Claudia J, below right.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

All dahlias, all the time

The dahlia garden near the main entrance of the Spokane Veteran Affairs Medical Center, 4815 N. Assembly St., is free and open to the public. Dahlias are typically their prettiest from late August through late September.

See the winners of the 2008 Inland Empire Dahlia Society competition, surrounded by an estimated 1,000 entries, at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, Sept. 13 from 1 to 10 p.m. and Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Entrance is included in the admission fee to the Spokane County Fair in Spokane Valley.

Manito Park in Spokane is home to one of seven dahlia trial gardens in the United States. The test plot, where new hybrids are grown, is in the northwest corner of Rose Hill. Admission is free.

For information on Spokane’s Inland Empire Dahlia Society, call Claudia Biggs at (509) 326-1953 or e-mail her at

Civic clubs, nursing homes and gardening enthusiasts may book presentations or request DVDs of dahlias set to music by calling society member Claudia Biggs at (509) 326-1953 or e-mailing her at

In the spring, the local dahlia society will sell starts (tubers) from many of the dahlias now blooming on the VA Medical Center grounds. Sales, always on Saturdays, will take place in late April at Northwest Seed and Pet Inc. on North Division Street and in early May at the company’s other location on 2422 E. Sprague Ave.

For someone who didn’t have a clue about gardening and initially “did everything wrong,” Claudia Biggs has made a quite a name for herself. She’s known as “The Dahlia Lady” – a title she gives top billing on her business cards.

She and her husband, Dr. Dennis Biggs, both retired after long careers at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, are the creative energy behind a dazzling summer flower garden bursting with 175 dahlias. It’s located near the medical center’s main entrance and just outside the rehab/prosthetics building.

“It’s our way of paying back the place where we met and spent our work years,” Biggs said with a smile.

Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Fred Kidney, a Vietnam veteran, recently ambled over to admire the garden during a break from his medical tests, something he’s done all nine summers since the garden sprouted.

“I love the garden,” he said. “It’s just a nice, peaceful spot. I’ve been thinking about bringing my mother-in-law down and just letting her sit on that bench and look at these” beautiful blooms.

Biggs, in knee-high black rubber boots, Bermuda shorts, fleece pullover and white bucket hat, beamed. Her husband concentrated on hoeing the rare weed or two.

A stream of veterans, some accompanied by their spouses, lingered over the garden.

They marveled at blossoms in deep purples, delicate pinks, shades of apricot, deep reds, soft yellows and snowy whites. Some blooms are as large as dinner plates, others as petite as cotton balls.

It’s amazing how they’ve opened up with the recent sun, said a VA Hospital groundskeeper who dropped by to compliment the Biggses.

Perhaps the VA garden’s splendor stems from the fact it encompasses the “Fabulous 50,” dahlias that have bagged the most prizes at American Dahlia Society-sanctioned flower shows, Biggs said.

They surround a basalt sculpture dedicated to the POW/MIA members of the armed forces and in memory of Spokane’s late Samuel Grashio, who’d been war prisoner.

Visitors at this time of year may spot several dahlias with Spokane roots. There’s the flame-colored Skipley Claudia J., a hybrid nurtured and named for Biggs by her friend Dick Williams of Snohomish, Wash.

Close by are deep purple and white Mii Tai blossoms. They’re from a dahlia honoring a now elderly Japanese woman who lives in Spokane and was an avid gardener. There also are enormous yellow blooms of Inland Dynasty, bred by Spokane’s Norm and Dawn Anselmo and grown the world over.

All are descendents of the first dahlias. Small and daisy shaped, the early flowers were discovered in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Central America. Over the centuries, the flowers found their way to European and American gardens.

Today, dahlias are classified into 19 different petal shapes and arrangements – including some that look like waterlilies, daisies, mums, stars, peonies and pastel cactus. “We try to have as many of the forms as possible” and post ID tags on every one, Biggs said.

“I spend a lot of my own money just to make it pretty,” she added with a whisper.

Some days, this garden serves as the only bright spot during a loved one’s somber diagnoses and or failing health.

“Families will come by here. We usually don’t pick them. But they’ll say: ‘We’re going in to see my father who’s dying of cancer.’ And we give them one,” Biggs said.

The Biggses spend between six and eight hours a week in the garden. They try to arrive early in the morning. If they wait until later in the day, they’re constantly interrupted by inquisitive but well-meaning passersby, Biggs said. “And we can’t get any work done.”

Twice a year, fall and spring, a legion of local dahlia society members pitch in to keep the garden growing.

In late fall, they dig up the flowers’ tubers for winter storage. In spring, they return to plant.

“We love doing it and the veterans are so appreciative,” Claudia smiled.

About a mile away, another 250 dahlias decorate the Biggs’ front and back yards. Friends and neighbors seem to enjoy the annual sight. And Biggs regularly cuts fresh bouquets to share with everyone from their dry cleaner to their dentist.

“I spoil everybody and they all just love them,” she said.

Reach Paula Davenport at (509) 459-5153 or

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