Tag Archives: dahlias

cutflowers of summer

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Dahlia coccinea ‘Orange,’ Mendocino Botanical Garden

Thank goodness there’s not a crazy nativist strain complicating appreciation of summer’s most colorful annuals.
The only walls associated with these summer beauties might be the ones surrounding your cutting garden (you lucky devil!)
Cosmos, zinnias, and dahlias, the mainstay of summer vases, are all outsiders that emigrated via European explorer ships from Mexico and South America.
And how far they’ve come! Zinnias have even been germinated on the International Space Station.
And dahlias — well, the colors and shapes are sometimes almost too outre to be believed.
The more outlandish are generally grown for cutting, not for associations with other plants in the summer garden.
That’s because a flower as big as your head will require several stakes to keep from crashing face forward.
Smaller-flowered, more graceful varieties like “Bishop of Llandaff’ are often included in summer borders, but even these won’t thrive in dryish gardens like mine.
Here’s just a small sample I found at a local nursery’s dahlia cutflower contest last weekend that shows their incredible range.

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My first trip to the Pacific Northwest (in plant years, when Hinkley still owned Heronswood) included a stop at Swan Island Dahlias, whose catalogues I perused into tatters.
Their growing fields are a hallucinatory experience. In the UK, Sarah Raven has been a staunch champion of dahlias.
Floret Flower Farm provides detailed growing instructions here and also ships tubers.
On a much smaller scale, my little community garden plot is starting to favor flowers over edibles, with as many zinnias planted as beans and tomatoes this year.
To grow zinnias for cutflowers, my usual brand of tough love won’t cut it. With the possible exception of cosmos, the cutflowers of summer need the best growing conditions you can give them.

this summer’s dahlias

I moved my one dahlia, the deep burgundy ‘Chat Noir,’ to my community garden plot this summer. Performance was…meh. By August the plant was finished. The soil at the CG still needs work if it’s to grow anything but zinnias and kale. Maybe next summer.

On the subject of next summer, a dahlia I’d be interested in trialing at the CG would be varieties of Dahlia coccinea. At the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens this past August, it wasn’t the carefully staked varieties in their exclusive dahlia show garden I was interested in, but the dahlia I found growing in a rambunctious tumble of sunflowers and artichokes against the fence in their vegetable garden. The leaves were fresh and healthy, the flowers abundant and proportionate to the plant. This dahlia calls to mind the flower the Spanish explorers would have seen blooming in Mexico in the 16th century. (“Spaniards reported finding the plants growing in Mexico in 1525, but the earliest known description is by Francisco Hernández, physician to Philip II, who was ordered to visit Mexico in 1570 to study the ‘natural products of that country.'”)

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Dahlia coccinea ‘Orange.’

From the Wikipedia entry on dahlias: “In 1787, the French botanist Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville, sent to Mexico to steal the cochineal insect valued for its scarlet dye, reported the strangely beautiful flowers he had seen growing in a garden in Oaxaca. In 1789, Vicente Cervantes, Director of the Botanical Garden at Mexico City, sent “plant parts” to Abbe Antonio José Cavanilles, Director of the Royal Gardens of Madrid. Cavanilles flowered one plant that same year in his Icones plantarum, then the second one a year later. In 1791 he called the new growths “Dahlia” for Anders Dahl. The first plant was called Dahlia pinnata after its pinnate foliage; the second, Dahlia rosea for its rose-purple color. In 1796 Cavanilles flowered a third plant from the parts sent by Cervantes, which he named Dahlia coccinea for its scarlet color.” (my emphasis)

For more on that “cochineal insect,” read here.

Annie’s Annuals & Perennials carries a nice selection of Dahlia coccinea.

the first summer dahlias and a freakish summer rain

I moved the dahlias to the community garden this year and am so very glad I did. Just as in my own small home garden last year, the plant is a sprawling mess, but now I don’t have to look at it daily anymore and can pillage the flowers for vases as much as I like. No matter how many vases I own, it’s always this lab beaker that I grab first. Wide mouth, perfect height. The dahlia is ‘Chat Noir.’ I could easily get very serious about a cutting garden and wished I’d sown some ‘Green Envy’ zinnias this year.

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So my little 10X10 plot is producing exactly three things so far this summer: dahlias, kale, and Trionfo Violetto pole beans. Plus a little basil. I’ve never felt compelled to grow every vegetable A to Z in the summer garden. In fact, I’m late this year with tomatoes, just planting a couple earlier in the week. I admit, it’s la-la land’s long growing season that makes this lackadaiscal attitude possible. The community garden’s disease control rule of thumb is no tomatoes/solanaceae crops left in the ground past December, and none of the solanaceae group (aka nightshade family, including potatoes, eggplant) makes it into the compost piles. The down side of that long growing season and lack of winter chill (and isn’t there always a down side?) is the heightened risk of soil-borne pathogens.

Oh, and it rained today, a rare occurrence in a mediterranean climate, where all the rain (all 12 inches of it!) typically comes in the winter months. On the personal water conservation front, an ongoing domestic discussion since the dishwasher broke is which consumes more resources, hand washing or a dishwasher? I’m finding lots of articles like this to support my pro-dishwasher position. All opinions welcome.

Friday clippings 6/29/12

Lobelia tupa from Chile is blooming for the first time in my garden, thereby making everything right again with the world. Long time coming, Ms. Tupa. The color on the lobelia is deeper than salmon but slightly less intense than tomato red. Pure and unmuddied. Don’t crowd her and give her lots of compost. 4 feet tall now but still a young plant. Seems to be a late-summer bloomer everywhere else in her favored digs of zone 8 and warmer.


I had an enormous Agave bovicornuta growing here last year. Big mistake, for both me and the agave, whose leaves were spotting brown from the relatively higher levels of irrigation in the back garden, while my forearms were spotting red from the frequent piercings from its formidable spines. Never should have been planted in a part of the garden I change up so often. Its rapid speed of growth did catch me off guard. For old time’s sake, a photo of the agave from last year. Was that cowhorn agave purdy.


Petunia integrifolia axillaris (“Wild White Petunia”) has started to reseed about, which is always the game plan. Tough and fragrant.
The mother-ship plant came from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.


Shrubby Teucrium betonicum, also from Annie’s, looks promising but would probably appreciate being moved out of the tough-love gravel garden.


The rolling tool cart is serving as a summer conservatory, changed out frequently with the potted plant du jour.


Moving the Lepismium cruciforme here into full sun will deepen its reddish coloration. I’m waiting for this trailing, epiphytic cactus from Argentina and Brazil to gain some heft and length before moving it to a hanging container. All those tiles I seem to accumulate make great pot trivets, and the glass interrupters are useful for holding down tablecloths in a breeze. Finding sensible purposes for irrational magpie acquisitions is so satisfying. Still haven’t identified the sedum in the foreground on the right.


The stacked-leaf succulent is Portulaca molokiniensis from Hawaii, which shatters my childishly cliche notions about Hawaii’s plant life as one vast Rousseau’s jungle. I may need to take up my brother’s invitation for a visit one of these days.


Our early morning marine layer, aka the June Gloom, which I find anything but gloomy, is almost over. Dahlias just beginning.
In addition to ‘Chat Noir,’ I planted a couple other dahlias, for a grand total of three this year. They’re a tricky plant to fit into a tiny garden along with the other plants I enjoy growing, so three is really pushing it. Keeping them in pots in the garden border makes it easy to dial in their water and compost needs. Even with these maneuvers, I may end up moving them to my community vegetable plot since their needs are so similar to vegetables.


I mentioned my infatuation with expanded steel in a recent post, seen here in a little table I’ve had for some years.
If you can’t stop yourself from placing potted plants on outdoor tables, even to the point of ruining them, this is the way to go.
Containers drain right through the fretwork.


Southern California is a graveyard of machine shop detritus like these mysterious former agents of industry.


Time for another good prowl through the salvage yards. And the CSSA Annual Show & Sale at Huntington Botanical Gardens this weekend. All on just two days, cheated out of a long weekend by the 4th orphaned in the middle of next week.


Another entry from the Agaves I Have Loved and Lost department, this one taken in June last year of my now-departed Agave guadalajarana. Maybe I’ll find another one at the CSSA sale.


Rained Out

Unlike a sporting event or outdoor concert or meal, a Southern California garden that’s rained out in early October is cause for rejoicing.


And to really intensify the blissed-out experience of the first seasonal rains, just the day before you must have tucked in some new plants.


Along with the Salvia farinacea ‘Texas Violet’, two Agave parryi var. truncata have also left their long-time homes in containers to manage independently in this very hot, dry strip, which they will handle beautifully. An enormous, woody ‘Waverly’ salvia needed pruning off the bricks, where it had bulged at least 3 feet outward from the garden, and then after pruning looked so misshapen it was removed entirely. (There was a small incident, a minor trip-and-fall over the plants spilling onto the brick patio outside the office, with some mild bruising. Accusations flew, and to keep the peace the only solution was a bout with the pruning shears.) Though there’s plenty of other winter salvias to bloom, I was worried about my hummingbird friends so used to having a nip from salvia flowers in this part of the garden. Amazing how their interests and mine coincide so nicely! These two salvia should keep them happy until cut to the base later in winter, that is if these Texas natives like the conditions. Read San Marcos Growers’ description of this salvia here. Some eyebrow grass (wouldn’t ‘Andy Rooney’ be a better cultivar name than ‘Blonde Ambition’?), Bouteloua gracilis, are getting a tryout here too. Drumstick alliums, A. sphaerocephalum, were interplanted among the grasses and salvia. (Tulips and alliums arrived in the mail yesterday. Exquisite timing. The tulips and other alliums requiring a chill went into the fridge until after Thanksgiving.)

I’ve noticed once agaves edge a planting with newly disturbed soil, the cats stay out.


It’s all part of the creeping agave syndrome the back garden has been experiencing. Slowly, imperceptibly the garden is readying itself for less and less irrigation. Last year the first agave, a large Agave bovicornuta, was slipped from its pot and planted in the ground.


And some Agave ‘Blue Flame’ were planted in the back last year too.
Although the front garden has been full of agaves for years, the agave creep in the back garden is a new phenomenon.


But such concerns as possible diminished precipitation in the future fly out the blurry window on a rainy day, which are also the rare occasions I’m actually glad for a small garden. The back pressed against the surrounding walls only allows for tight shots, but today the shelter of the eaves is a welcome spot for keeping the camera dry. The house or garage or boundary walls are always just 3 or 4 feet away. (Hence, the disputes over plants spilling onto walkways.) The burgundy grass is the pennisetum hybrid ‘Princess Caroline,’ which looks to be a strong grower. A gallon was split into two clumps mid-summer. All the old anigozanthos bloom stalks were cut away, this sole new bloom in bright yellow pushed horizontal by the rain.


The watering can has been handed over once again to more capable hands than mine.


Now that the baton has been passed, the dahlias will be so pleased and may just make it to November.


Summer’s Bounty


Man cannot live by tomatoes alone. (The first dahlia opened today.)

There’s no way I’m going to keep the garden moist enough simply for a few dahlias to thrive, but I’d hate to face August and September without them. So this year I planted my one dahlia tuber in a 5-gallon nursery can in March, amping up the potting soil with lots of compost. The container was then plunged into the garden, hidden from view behind some grasses but still in full sun and easily accessible for watering. This prestidigitation with containers, popping them into the garden in season, whether tulips, lilies, or dahlias, keeps things interesting, and has the added benefit of allowing the water runoff from the containers to go directly in the garden’s soil. Checking the blog, I find this dahlia was bought in 2009 at a garden show, and I neglected to note the name.

As far as tomatoes, so far it’s been a disaster, and I’m miserable about it. 2010 was a raging success. Never having had a garden before, my mom was thrilled with her daily summer bounty of tomatoes and zucchini from the 5X8 foot raised bed we built off her patio, and probably has the world’s unofficial record for number of zucchini breads baked by one woman in a 3-month period, which she froze then gave as holiday gifts. I knew the first year of living alone after my dad died would be difficult and, of course, my predictable solution was to plant a garden for her. I can’t help it. My mind finds the solution to all problems at the end of a garden path. (If the U.S. Congress can’t get this debt ceiling debate reconciled, they should be made to tend the White House vegetable garden in the sweltering heat of August and September, and then distribute the vegetables among the Capitol’s needy. And with their paychecks suspended in limbo.)

This year for her raised bed I foolishly chose a San Marzano tomato on a whim, knowing nothing about this legendary sauce tomato from the Campania region of Italy. As a sauce tomato, it doesn’t crop like tomatoes grown for the table, and while her friends are boasting of the ripe tomatoes they’re picking, she’s had zip. Right now it’s loaded with huge, bright green tomatoes, but over the past week the vine looks to have become diseased. I wouldn’t know cucumber mosaic virus if it bit me on the ass, but I’m guessing this is the affliction.

My mom is heartbroken. After her happy, carefree foray into vegetable gardening in 2010, except for the surprise success with Persian cucumbers, this year is all confusion and pain. Which is a common state of being for vegetable gardeners, something I’m trying to explain to my mom. But she just thinks she’s done something wrong, when the fault is all mine for choosing a late-cropping, finicky variety meant for sauces and not eating fresh.

Today I’m running to the local nursery to find a run-of-the-mill, dependable tomato to plant in a large container for her. There’s plenty of time left in our long growing season to turn this sad tomato situation around. Wish I could say the same for any prospect of turning this sad political season around as well.

Dahlias, Dahling

I have this one dahlia that came back this spring. Bought at a spring 2009 garden show. I’ve pored over the skimpy 2009 garden notebook but apparently didn’t write down the name, if it was even labeled. A font of information as usual, but aren’t dahlias nice? Doesn’t its exotic looks make you want to wrap your head in a turban like Gloria Swanson and throw on a caftan? Or maybe since the dahlia is from Mexico, perhaps dressing Tehuana style like Frida Kahlo would be more appropriate. Heck, if summer finds me in anything other than dirty gardening jeans, it counts as festive.


The dahlia is deep mid bed, so the oblique view is not artistic but just a reluctance to step into the garden for a better shot. Clay compacts surprisingly fast. And don’t let this long-necked beauty’s voluptuous looks blind you to the essential requirement of firm support. Unseen in this photo is the gauche use of a length of rebar for staking. One well-grown, well-supported dahlia can put on quite a lengthy show in a small garden.


Some dahlias do well wintering over in the garden in zone 10. Frost isn’t a problem because there isn’t any, but heavy, wet soil can be. I had a ‘Thomas Edison’ who loved wintering over in situ, and I see dahlias grown in the ground year-round in the neighborhood. It’s case-by-case experimentation, because some dahlias simply will not tolerate overwintering in the ground. All three tubers from 2009 were wintered in pots, all came through firm and looked ready to grow, but only this one wasn’t kidding. They were all this color, so no matter really. I’d guess this one might be classified a waterlily type, but I could be wrong since I don’t bother much with the various classifications. My only requirement is that the flower be on the smaller side, not the ginormous dinnerplate dahlias, and I confess to pursuing the darker-petaled, burgundy colors. The height of luxury is choosing them “in the petal,” which I had the good fortune to do many years ago at Swan Island’s annual Dahlia Festival, which is held later in the summer, August and September.

And these exotic beauties are absolute pigs for compost, the more manure in the compost the better.