Thursday, September 24, 2020

Happier Dahlias

I have grown dahlias - not very well - for years.  Inspired by a huge bouquet in my friend Ellen's kitchen, I was thrilled when she told me how easy they are to grow...ha. For her.  She has deep rich soil and endless patience.

My first attempts came roaring up and keeled over, the stems covered with buds broken off.  I felt reproached. And responsible.  So I staked... and  I got a few flowers.  

Ellen told me her dahlias get bigger every year.  I left them in the ground over the winter, looking forward to armfuls of flowers the next year.   Bad idea number two.  We don't freeze, but we have sticky clay soil, and the next spring there was not one dahlia left.  Well, one - the indefatigable Thomas Edison, photos in prior posts.  He is the one thing that kept me from giving up, and every time I see those purple flowers waving above the foliage I feel better.  About everything.

The next year I tried digging them all up in winter ...they were already mush. 
I cried.  Note to self: dig before the rains come.

The following year I dug them in fall, before the rains came.  Laid them carefully wrapped in newspapers in wooden crates in the garage...
Better.  But lots died in storage, and lots didn't sprout in spring. 

I have tried staking.  I have pinched - apparently not enough, for the few dahlias I haven't managed to kill (Thomas and one other nameless hot pink) are taller than I can reach.  And I'm tall.  

So when my friend Meher and I had the chance to visit The Happy Dahlia Farm in Petaluma I was - you guessed it - happy.

It's called the Happy Dahlia Farm for good reason.  Long rows of gorgeousness in a rainbow of shapes and colors greets you. I was stunned.   

There are so many shapes!   Cactus, pompon, dinnerplate.  Waterlily, orchid, peony.  The smaller the flower the more the plant produces.   I confess a soft spot for dinnerplates, but the 4 to 6 inch look best in a vase.  And play well with others. And don't break the stems with the weight of their heads.  

I fell in love with this creamy blowsy dahlia, only to learn she is one of the most difficult.  Figures.  I may still try, but I won't get my hopes up.

At the Happy Dahlia Farm they plant their dahlias 12 inches apart in the row, in double rows with the rows 14 inches apart.  They are supported by each other, and by wires about 2 feet off the ground.  None of the ugly staking I've been living with.  And they have left comfortable aisles between the double rows.  For walking, for cutting.  For dead heading.  For admiring.  For daydreaming.

Half open...

Or in full glory. Every time I turned there was another stunner.  I fell in love with this combination of colors.  I'd like to upholster a couch in these colors.  Or maybe paint a tiny bathroom. So happy.

You can bring a basket and have a social distance picnic.  You can stay as long as you'd like.  You can buy plants and cut flowers.  They sell a few tubers, but plants are a surer thing.  They have a newsletter with advice and events.  They are happy people, these dahlia lovers, and will answer endless questions.   

You cannot, however. cut your own.  It looks perfect because people who know what they're doing tend the dahlias.  If they turned us loose - I shudder to think.  

 You can, however, take all the photos you want, and come home with dreams and aspirations.  Thanks to all their wise advice, humor and kindness I know what I've done wrong, what to let go because gardening is never perfect and nature bats last.  And what to try next year.  Can't wait.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Before The Smoke

Before the 110 degree heat, before the choking smoke, before the fires that are devouring people's lives, I had a cutting garden full of lovely things.  

Okay, some were not so lovely any more.  But they were loved.  And it's a cutting garden. so it doesn't have to look good.  At least not all the time.  And yes those are onions and yes I cut them.

I would go down in the mornings with a cup of tea and a big basket, and cut until the basket was overflowing.  I'm sure when I clean up the garden in late fall I'll find a forgotten teacup or six.  Gardening is filled with happy surprises.    

In this basket - a tall white butterfly bush, new this year.  A two foot campanula primulafolia. I have carried seedlings and little jars of seed from garden to garden.  It seeds all over.  I love it.

Some David Austin roses, hopeless as cut flowers but so graceful and fragrant.  A long sprig of duck foot ivy.  An intensely blue bush clematis.  The raw material.

I make arrangements on the outdoor table, the leftover bits swept onto the patio and then into a nearby bed.  This vase has a pink scabiosa that grew to six feet before it keeled over and went to seed.  Note to self: stronger stakes next year.  It is, however, seeding all over the potato patch.  Sometimes good things come from what looks like disaster.

Back to the flowers: I think the rose is The Dark Lady from David Austin, but the tag is long gone.  I know I also planted Prospero, and it's also a David Austin and a major shedder on day two in the house.  I don't care, I love the graceful way they droop, and I leave the fallen petals.

Some plain blue buddleia that volunteered and is reseeding all over the place.  The hummingbirds love it.  That intense blue bush clematis.  Some unopened rose buds - it's a cutting garden and I cut buds knowing they will never open.  I love the way they feel in an arrangement, that not all the flowers are the same age.  Some still in bud, some drooping and shedding. 

I had a few leftover bits I could not bring myself to sweep off the table.   A Brandy rose, a deep pink rose, alas also tag-less.  One leftover spray of that dark David Austin, a bit of peach yarrow that lasts forever, and a scabiosa seed pod.  And yes that blue clematis with the teensy intense flowers.  Just a few flowers by the kitchen window.  That seems to be where I'm spending a lot of time.

The first dahlia to bloom is always Thomas Edison.  He's also the last to quit.  I quite like him with the peachy Pat Austin rose.  And the shed petal.  The tomatoes?  The jury is still out.  

One of the joys of having a cutting garden  (besides the miracle that things are actually growing) is not cutting something if I'm not in the mood for that flower.  In my regular garden things get dead headed.  They rarely get cut, cutting leaves holes.  In the cutting garden I have been cutting with abandon, and I'm letting things go to seed.  Next year I'm hoping for happy surprises.  

Hot pink hollyhocks have reseeded everywhere.  For the first few years I harvested seed and coaxed it along.  Now? I throw the spent stalks where I want hollyhocks and dig out the extras.

This year I got a whole crop of weird looking pointy purple and green tomatoes I didn't plant.  And a huge crop of potatoes in the flower bed above the pool, growing happily under that hot pink holly hock.  Surprisingly pretty foliage, and not bad as a cut flower.  Weird fact: the flowers tell you what color the potatoes are.  White flowers for white, pink for red and lavender for blue.

  Next year: Daisies invading the dahlias? Masses of sweet peas?  I can dream.  Sweet peas are not especially happy with me, and the birds love to pull them up, but I did have one pale pink sweet pea volunteer in the gravel and flower away.  It set seed.  I am hoping for great things.

There will be sheets of low blue forget-me-nots in spring, and hellebores volunteering between the stone steps.  I'm tossing out handfuls of nigella and poppy seeds and hoping they will be happy.  

I know I'm lucky my garden is only smoky, so many have lost everything.  I'm hoping some day the fires will stop.  And I am grateful for all the things that grow.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Cutting Garden To Save My Sanity

 Before the pandemic, before the lockdown, inspired by my friend Jane and her fabulous cutting garden in East Hampton, I planted a modest cutting garden. At the very bottom of our garden, where there used to be a lawn.  With inadequate drip irrigation...there was a lot of cursing and hand watering at first.  

Some things from seed, most from 4 inch pots.

Some left over from last year (the Thomas Edison dahlias), some gifted by friends.

Tall blue salvia uliginosa, light and airy Nepeta six hills giant, a stiff mystery plant from Portugal with hairy lavender flowers, beginning to go to seed.

Fragrant blue sweet peas planted last fall climbed to the top of their trellis and spilled over.  I've been cutting long branches to try to get them back under control.  They have territorial ambitions.

Huge heads of mid pink scabiosa.  I should have cut this back by half when it was only two feet tall.  It's now over six feet and a constant battle to keep it upright.  And to keep it from going to seed.  

I'm not a fan of daisies but these Shasta daisies may change my mind...they don't need staking and they are cheerful.  Even when I am emphatically not.

And the fabulous Thomas Edison dahlias.  Planted in gopher cages, left to winter over in our sticky clay. They are the only dahlias to return year after year.  

Laid out on the outdoor dining table, ready to arrange.  I start with the filler, the smaller plants that will spill over the vase.  Their stems hold the flowers I want more upright... the pincushion flower (scabiosa is such an ugly word, sounds like a skin disease) and the daisies.  And that lovely blue salvia.

There were enough flowers for two arrangements. Well, almost.  Another trip down the long staircase to cut more sweet peas. 
Dahlias and other large flowers go in last, then into a dark cool room for a few hours.  Then in places where I can see them - rooms where I spend time, pass by often. Maybe something small in the bedroom, but I want to see them, to enjoy them.

So what have I learned?

First, the descriptions on the plants in the nursery (fabulous cut flower! Trouble free! Blooms all summer!) are often written by someone who either has never grown a thing, doesn't own a pair of shears, has never had a flower arrangement last for more than one day, or is on drugs.  Or is paid to exaggerate.  

Those plants that emphatically do not make good cut flowers? Dug up and given away.  So the second lesson?  Be ruthless.

Next: If you're growing it from seed it will likely set seed and expire - here, as the summer heats up.  In your garden, perhaps as fall approaches.  But in the heat of our long summers so many beautiful things - huge blue scabiosa from Annie's Annuals, fragrant sweet peas in rich burgundy, mallows and hollyhocks - all gone to seed.  And yes, I was diligent about dead heading.  It's been over a hundred here for more than a week.  If I could go to seed I would...

Shasta daisies are on hiatus.  Cosmos have mildewed and quit.  Coreopsis soldiers on, but I am not in the mood for school bus yellow flowers.  Not in the heat; not after months of them.

Roses are still going but they do not last nearly as long in a vase as the dahlias.  

Salvias shed.  Inside, it looks like an invasion of blue bugs under the arrangement.  I sweep the spent flowers into the sink a few times a day, and keep food out of their range.  Blue flowers and breadcrumbs? No.

I've learned a lot about cutting and conditioning too.

Leaves get stripped, especially those below the water line.   Stems re-cut and quickly dipped in Quick Dip,  a flower conditioner, then into warm water and placed in a cool dark spot for conditioning.  The laundry room if the dryer isn't going.  The guest closet. A dark bathroom. The wine cellar if my husband isn't looking.

What do you grow for cutting? What's blooming in your garden?  What makes you happy?